Jurors went behind closed doors Thursday to begin deliberations in a murder trial that offered a glimpse of gang life and a somber reminder of a family forever altered by gunmen reportedly on a retaliation mission, but at the wrong address.
Six men and six women are on the jury that will decide the fate of Jonathan Santillan, a 19-year-old accused of murdering Jose S. Flores Mendoza and Maria Saravia Mendoza in January 2013.
The Mendozas, a couple who moved to Wake County from El Salvador in search of a better life, were found shot to death inside their Colonial Drive duplex near Garner on Jan. 5, 2013.
Prosecutors contend the couple were unintended victims in a gang war by gunmen unaware that their targets had moved from the Colonial Drive address at least a year before the violence.
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But in his closing arguments Thursday, David Saacks, the Wake County assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case, said the accused could still be found guilty of first-degree murder even if the intent was to kill someone else.
Saacks argued that jurors could find the defendant guilty of first-degree murder several ways:
▪ Through the felony murder rule in which the killing was carried out in the commission of the burglary that prosecutors also contend happened.
▪ If it were done with deliberation and malice.
▪ If the defendant was found guilty of acting in concert with others who committed murder.
“From the very start, this case has shocked us and horrified us,” Saacks said at the start of his closing arguments. “This case is not about vengeance; it’s about justice.”
Defense attorney Jeff Cutler agreed about the horrifying nature of the crime and added that he, too, thought the jury’s goal should be a quest for justice.
Cutler urged the jury not to focus on the two sons. Jacob was 3 years old at the time and inside the duplex where his parents were killed. The boy was found crying on top of his lifeless father, who was shot 16 times while sitting in front of the TV. Jose Mendoza had worked the late-night shift at the Golden Corral restaurant where he and his wife worked and had been home only a short time when someone kicked in the dead-bolted door and sprayed gunfire around the home.
Maria Mendoza, his wife, was shot seven times at the stove, where she was cooking food for her husband.
Jorge, their older son, 15 now, was spending the night at his uncle’s house when his parents were killed.
“It’s tragic, it’s cold-blooded,” Cutler said. “But none of those things help you decide the case.”
Cutler argued that prosecutors had accused the wrong man, that the state’s key witness – Moises Reyes, who claimed to be the getaway driver but not a shooter – was not credible.
“Don’t decide this case based on your emotions,” Cutler told the jury. “That’s what the state wants you to do because they are lacking evidence.”
Saacks, in a closing argument that lasted about 90 minutes, offered jurors a list of things to consider in their deliberations. Saacks recounted testimony about a gang fight in December 2012 that prosecutors contend was at the root of the intended retaliation.
During that fight one man was pistol-whipped. Reyes recounted doing that after seeing his brother, Pablo, struggling in a fight. Reyes said he used the butt of a handgun, but it was a different kind from the one used at the murder scene.
Investigators found shell casings from a .45-caliber handgun and a 7.62 mm rifle at the homicide scene. They also found distinctive casings that matched evidence from the fight scene in December.
Santillan and Israel Vasquez, the other teen charged in the case, were found 10 days after the shooting in a home where the murder weapons were discovered, according to Saacks.
Santillan was hiding in the attic, according to investigators, and the weapons were stuffed into insulation there. Vasquez, who has not yet gone to trial, was on a chair in a locked closet, reaching for the attic, when investigators arrested him.
“What points to the defendant?” Saacks said to the jury.
“Here’s your star,” Saacks said, holding up one of the weapons. “Whoever had the weapons that did this is likely to be the person that did this.”
Cutler countered in his closing argument, though, that being in the same attic as the weapons was not evidence of “pulling the trigger.”
In an eight-hour interrogation with police 10 days after the killings, Santillan told investigators that the guns were “hot,” or stolen.
Santillan, Saacks argued, provided investigators information during that interview with police that only someone who had been inside the duplex could have known.
During that interview, Santillan told investigators that he had not been at the Mendoza duplex, but he “might have heard something” about what happened.
On numerous occasions during that videotaped session, Santillan tried to strike a deal with investigators. He sought protective custody for him and his family; he asked investigators to call the district attorney’s office for a deal-maker but finally offered up the name of Moises Reyes.
Santillan repeatedly told investigators during that interview that their focus on him was wrong, and he offered at one time to call Reyes, who would bolster his claims.
But weeks later, after Reyes knew what Santillan had told investigators, Reyes provided investigators with their first and only witness account putting the then-15-year-old at the crime scene. Reyes is accused of being an accessory after the fact. He testified that he was hoping his testimony in the Santillan trial would win him a deal with prosecutors in his own case.
“Moises Reyes is lying to protect himself and someone else from a murder charge,” Cutler contended.
The jury broke on Thursday without a verdict. Deliberations resume Friday.
Cutler noted that investigators linked the December gang violence and the homicides through ballistic reports but did not provide a full picture of what was behind that fight.
Cutler tried to cast further doubt on the testimony of Reyes.
“He’s had two and a half years to get this story right, and he cannot do it,” Cutler argued. “He still cannot tell the truth.”