Jonathan Santillan showed little emotion as the Wake County courtroom clerk read aloud guilty verdict after guilty verdict on Friday afternoon.
The teen had been on trial for the past two weeks, accused of murdering Jose S. Flores Mendoza and his wife, Maria Saravia Mendoza, in a case that offered a glimpse of gang rivalries in the Garner area.
As the clerk read out that the jury had found him guilty of the most serious charge – first-degree murder – Santillan, 18, took a sip from the polystyrene cup in front of him.
Members of his family showed more emotion in the back of the courtroom, quietly crying and wiping away tears as Judge Paul Gessner spent a few minutes talking with jury members before he released them.
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Throughout the trial, Wake County Assistant District Attorney David Saacks and the witnesses he called offered descriptions in Spanish and English of a gruesome crime scene.
Jose Mendoza was shot 16 times while wrapped in a blanket in his living room, watching TV and eating a late-night meal. Both Mendozas worked at a Golden Corral restaurant in Wake County. He had worked the late shift and dropped off a co-worker about 11:45 p.m. on Jan. 4, 2013, before heading to his house.
Saacks said Maria Mendoza was found shot seven times at her kitchen stove, where she had been cooking.
Investigators estimate that at least 40 shots were fired after midnight into the Mendoza family’s duplex on Colonial Drive near Garner. Some of the gunfire, according to a neighbor in the unit next door, went through an adjoining wall.
Jurors were shown photos from the bloody scene. They heard about an earlier gang fight that investigators said led Santillan and two others to the Colonial Drive address, where they thought a rival gang member lived. But that person had moved out earlier, and the Mendozas were unintended targets.
A second teen accused in the shootings, Israel Vasquez, is awaiting trial on first-degree murder charges.
Witnesses testified about seeing the younger son of the Mendozas, who was just 3 at the time, curled up on his father’s body and crying after the gunfire subsided.
“Cases such as this are very difficult,” Gessner told the jurors. “It’s normal to be affected by these things, and people sometimes find comfort talking to folks to talk through the issues.”
Though the jurors no longer were prohibited from talking with others about the case, they left the courthouse Friday without explaining how they had come to the guilty verdicts.
Cutler, who did not call any witnesses in his defense of Santillan, had argued for acquittal. He said the key witness for prosecutors, a 21-year-old who claimed to be the getaway driver, had lied on the witness stand to cover up his role in the killings.
Saacks acknowledged that his key witness had a credibility problem, but the prosecutor was quick to point out that investigators found the murder weapons in the attic where Santillan was hiding on the day of his arrest.
Saacks also noted that Santillan provided investigators with a drawing of the inside of the Mendoza home during a prolonged interrogation shortly after his arrest. Though Santillan told investigators that he had not gone to Colonial Drive but had only heard about the shooting from the man who claimed to be the driver, his sketch nearly matched a floor plan of the duplex.
During their deliberations Friday, jurors asked to see the floor plan again.
They spent about an hour and a half behind closed doors together Thursday. On Friday, they started deliberating again at noon. At about 2:45 p.m. came the rap at the jury room door that signaled the end of one phase of the trial.
In addition to the two counts of first-degree murder, Santillan was convicted of burglary, conspiracy to commit burglary, possession of a firearm with an altered serial number, and assault with a deadly weapon with intent to inflict serious injury, for his role in the December gang fight.
On Tuesday, the judge will begin the sentencing phase. Because Santillan was only 15 at the time of the murders, the law excludes capital punishment as an option.
At Tuesday’s sentencing hearing, the judge will consider evidence for and against a sentence of life without possibility for parole or something less.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that an automatic sentence of life without possibility of parole for people who were younger than 18 when the murder they were convicted of occurred was “cruel and unusual punishment” and a violation of the Eighth Amendment.
Teens, as many in the juvenile justice system point out, do not have fully developed brains, causing some to be at risk for a lack of impulse control. North Carolina and other states were forced to change laws because of that ruling.
In North Carolina, a judge in such cases now must hold a sentencing hearing to consider mitigating factors before issuing a life sentence with no possibility for parole.
On Friday, prosecutors said they planned to share statements from family members of the victims, who will talk about the impact of the crime. Jacob, now 6, and the Mendozas’ older son, Jorge, now 15, lost their parents on that cold January morning.
Maria Mendoza’s brother and sister care for the boys now. Jorge had been spending the night at his uncle’s home the night of the murders.
Cutler said he would spend the coming days reviewing what the defense will present at the sentencing hearing.
Gessner said Friday that the Santillan case will be the first teen murder verdict he has considered since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.