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1 man convicted, other gets hung jury in slaying

Sixteen-year-old Danny Morales of Atwater had just returned from a gang intervention program in Mexico when he was shot and killed while getting a bite to eat at a south Modesto taco stand.

His death three years ago led to a split verdict Wednesday afternoon in Stanislaus County Superior Court.

After deliberating for more than a week, jurors said Robert Lopez, the man who shot Danny, is guilty of second-degree murder, assault with a deadly weapon and committing a crime for the benefit of a gang.

But co-defendant Manuel Hernandez, who took the witness stand to finger Lopez as the shooter, got a reprieve, of sorts.

Four men and eight women said Hernandez is guilty of assault and gang charges, but they could not reach a verdict on the murder charge.

Danny's mother, Isabel Morales, who came to court alone and watched every day of the two-month trial, said the verdicts bring some sense of closure, but they don't take the pain away.

"It's been horrible, day after day," she said. "It's a tremendous pain you feel when your son is taken away like this. It's been three years of hell."

Jurors voted 11-1 to convict

Deputy District Attorney Tom Brennan said he will take Hernandez to trial again on the second-degree murder charge, because jurors told him they had voted 11-1 in favor of a conviction.

"He instigated the fight," he said of Hernandez.

Danny was wearing a blue Los Angeles Dodgers sweat shirt, the color associated with Sureño gang members, when he and two friends stopped at a taco truck at Crows Landing and Hatch roads in south Modesto on April 6, 2004.

In gang lingo, that area is known as Deep South Side Modesto. It is the turf of rival Norteños, who wear red.

According to testimony during a two-month trial, Hernandez drove by in an old Chevrolet Impala and gave Danny and his friends a hard stare.

A few minutes later, Hernandez returned with three other Norteños and the fight was on. Hernandez told the jury that he started the fight, but didn't plan to kill anyone and didn't realize that Lopez had a gun.

Authorities recovered four bullets from Danny's body, but were unable to match them to a .22-caliber revolver found under Lopez's mattress because the gun was too dirty.

Lopez, 19, of Modesto, faces 45 years to life in prison. He was 16 at the time of the shooting, but was prosecuted as an adult because of the severity of the charges. Judge Nancy Ashley said she will sentence him Sept. 11.

Hernandez, 27, of Modesto faces nearly nine years in prison for the assault and gang convictions, but Brennan said he will take the second-degree murder charge to a second jury instead.

Victim's older brother had just died

Isabel Morales said she and her husband discovered that their son was involved with gangs a few months before his death.

They sent him away on Jan. 4, 2004, to a rehabilitation center in Mexico. The center is for youths who are out of control, she said.

He returned on March 15, 2004, and seemed to have changed and stopped hanging around with gang members. "He became a son that any mother would want by her side," she said.

Danny spent about a month at home in Atwater without any problems, his mother said, but tragic circumstances pulled her away to Oregon on the day of the shooting.

Danny's older brother, Jaime, had been struck and killed by a train in early March. Weeks later, Isabel Morales had to go north to pick up her grandson. She left Danny at home.

He and his friends went to the mall to buy shoes, then stopped for tacos on the way home.

"His last words to me were, 'Mom, I'm just too tired to travel anymore,' " Morales said.

Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at sherendeen@modbee.com or 578-2338. Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at rahumada@modbee.com or 578-2394.

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