Aaron Aguilera believes he’s in jail and charged with murder because of a police “blunder.” He has told a jury he had nothing to do with a suspected gang-related shooting that killed a 10-year-old boy and a man in Modesto’s La Loma neighborhood.
“I’ll be just as innocent in the future as I am now,” Aguilera testified. “The truth will come out eventually.”
Aguilera, Randy Sifuentez and Joe Luis Ramirez are on trial. They are accused of being responsible for the deaths of the boy, Epifanio Ramirez Jr., and 29-year-old Jason Cyphers. Authorities say the boy’s father, Epifanio Ramirez Sr., was the intended target of Norteño gang retaliation. Joe Ramirez has no relation to the boy or his father.
For about four days, Aguilera sat on the witness stand and spoke directly to the jury. He read off of notes he wrote on yellow pieces of paper from a legal pad, and he referred to documents submitted as evidence.
Robert Winston, Aguilera’s attoney, did not question him on the witness stand, which is unusual in a criminal case. And opposing attorneys typically object to narrative testimony. Winston declined to comment about his client’s testimony.
John Sims, a law school ethics professor, says this is an indication that the defense attorney is concerned Aguilera might provide testimony that is untruthful or likely untruthful. Ethical standards prevent attorneys from participating in such testimony, said Sims, who teaches professional responsibility courses at University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento.
In these types of cases, the defense attorney would be forced to remove himself or herself from the case or be forced to participate in potentially perjurious testimony. Sims said the California courts have approved an alternative – allowing the defendant to testify in a narrative form.
The prosecution alleges Aguilera and Sifuentez carried out the deadly shooting, and Joe Ramirez ordered the hit. Epifanio Ramirez Sr. has testified that he was involved in a shootout with Aguilera and Sifuentez about a month before the shooting that killed his son. Authorities say the father was a former Norteño selling drugs on the gang’s turf without giving a share of the profits to gang leaders.
Aguilera spoke to the jury about his upbringing, his stint in prison for assaulting a man with a baseball bat, installing tile with a friend to make ends meet, his career as a real estate agent ending quickly with the 2008 housing market collapse, foreclosure on his home and moving to a smaller La Loma neighborhood home.
“We had to compensate because of the economy,” Aguilera said.
He worked at his father’s antiques shop and later at the auto body shop operated by his mother and stepfather. Ultimately, the jobs ended and he had to receive unemployment payments.
The defendant also described for the jury a failed attempt at committing suicide, hanging a noose that broke off shortly before his father and police officers entered his home to intervene. He explained to the jury that he was providing all these details for a reason.
“I’m up here to give you information about this stuff,” Aguilera told the jury. “So I’m going to express myself the best way I can.”
During cross-examination Friday by Deputy District Attorney Tom Brennan, Aguilera answered questions about a witness, who later refused to testify, alleging Aguilera hit his girlfriend over the head with a crowbar. “From my understanding, it was dropped for a lack of evidence,” Aguilera said about the domestic violence case.
The defendant also answered questions about a mayhem conviction for beating a man with a baseball bat. Aguilera said he doesn’t remember blood squirting from the victim’s arm as he tried to protect his head from the bat or hitting the victim while he was down before someone else stabbed the injured.
He testified he only remembers his emotions during the bat beating of a man who was stalking a woman Aguilera was having an affair with at the time. The man suffered a double-compound fracture in the attack, and doctors at one point considered amputating his arm.
In June 2014, Aguilera’s mental health became an issue when he told the judge he didn’t want his trial to be delayed again. After Aguilera refused to change his mind, Winston asked the judge to suspend the case, saying he had serious doubts about his client’s ability to understand the criminal case against him and the possible consequences he faces.
A month later, Stanislaus Superior Court Judge Marie Silveira reviewed the findings of a mental health evaluation and determined Aguilera was mentally competent to stand trial.
This week, Aguilera said in court he is not responsible for the shooting, telling the jurors that investigators mistakenly targeted him and failed to find the real shooters. On the witness stand, he recited a poem he wrote while in custody when his case was still eligible for the death penalty. Prosecutors have decided not to seek capital murder charges against the defendants.
Testimony in the trial has indicated that Aguilera is a key figure in a Norteño gang operating in east Modesto, with the defendant recruiting burglary crews and selling drugs. Aguilera told the jury that’s not true, that’s he’s never been a Norteño gang member.
The defendant testified Friday that police found him with a red bandana with the acronym E.S.M. that simply represents Northern California Chicano culture and not the Norteño gang East Side Modesto. The gang commonly uses the color red to demonstrate its membership. Authorities allege Aguilera has gang tattoos, including one with his street moniker, “Payaso,” which is clown in Spanish.
Aguilera will be allowed to respond to the cross-examination next week, when the trial resumes Tuesday morning. The trial began in late April and appears to be nearing its end.