Most of the 16 alleged gangmembers indicted on a range of gang-related crimes including murder and robbery postponed pleas Friday in their respective cases while one man’s defense attorney publicly called on prosecutors to “uncapitalize” the murder charges carrying the possibility of the death penalty.
Roberto Gabriel Bustos-Montes is one of nine charged with murder for gang purposes which makes him eligible for the death penalty but, outside of court, defense attorney Paul DeMeester called the potential punishment an unnecessary drain on county finances.
Defendants facing capital charges are appointed two attorneys and the defense racks up hefty bills for investigators, experts and their own work first to avoid a conviction and then, if necessary, to find mitigating reasons why the client should not face lethal injection, he said.
Take each defendant’s case and multiply that by nine and San Mateo County risks losing precious dollars for parks, education, public safety and other necessities, he said while publicly calling the district attorney to immediately take the punishment off the table.
“Steve Wagstaffe can put a stop to that by dropping death right now,” DeMeester said.
Wagstaffe dismissed DeMeester’s call as “ignorant” because he has never handled a death penalty case in this county and doesn’t understand the process.
On March 24, Wagstaffe, flanked by countywide law enforcement, announced the indictments which came after an 18-month long investigation into a series of murders, shootings and other crimes. Wagstaffe called the case easily the most massive one prosecuted in the office’s history. The criminal grand jury spent two months weighing evidence — eight times longer than any other ever conducted in San Mateo County.
The investigation, nicknamed “Operation Sunny Day” in reference to the code word used by gangmembers to indicate a completed murder, nabbed 16 defendants ranging in age from 19 to 28. Aside from murder, the charged crimes spanning the Peninsula include attempted murder, firearms possession, attempted robbery, conspiracy, drug trafficking, dissuading witnesses and bribery. The crimes stem from five primary acts of violence beginning Sept. 30, 2012, with a Belmont drive-by shooting on southbound Highway 101 when the Da Vill and Sac Street gangs of East Palo Alto teamed up against the Taliban gang of East Palo Alto and Menlo Park.
Wagstaffe’s office has a history of not making a death penalty decision early in a case, instead often waiting until closer to trial to announce what prosecutors seek. DeMeester said that is too late if the goal is not racking up undue expense.
DeMeester said it’s too early how much his client’s defense case might incur but coupled with the eight other subjects and based on similar undertakings in other counties he estimated up into the millions of dollars. One of the charged murders occurred in San Francisco rather than San Mateo County which DeMeester said is another way the county is hitting up local taxpayers unnecessarily.
DeMeester also dismissed the idea that seeking life without the possibility of parole instead of death for his client and the others is lenient.
Bustos-Montes, 24, of East Palo Alto was indicted along with Raymond Bradford, 28, of East Palo Alto; Nina Mehrnoosh Cragg, 23, of Palo Alto; Ralph Vernon Fields Jr., 26, of East Palo Alto, Emmanuel Hyland, 25, of East Palo Alto; Tyrone Love-Lopez, 21, of East Palo Alto; Eric Valencia Vargas, 20, of East Palo Alto; Marvin Jake Ware, 26, of East Palo Alto, Donte Demon Jordan, 19, of East Palo Alto; Roshawn Bickham, 25 of Hayward; LaQuisha Walker, 27, of East Palo Alto; Leonard James Gaines, 21, of East Palo Alto; Rodney Levence Mitchell, 22, of Newark; Robert Wheller Jr., 26, of Hayward; Jerry Coneal III, 19, of Menlo Park and Miguel Angel Rivera Jr., 23, of East Palo Alto.
On Friday, all but the few defendants still not yet in county custody delayed pleas until June 16 so that their attorneys can first review the amended indictment and the evidence. They are held on amounts ranging from $500,000 to no bail.
Vargas, Ware and Bradford are charged in the Belmont attempted murder and Bradford is also charged with the attempted robbery in a Middlefield Road jewelry store heist that ended with the clerk pulling out a shotgun.
Bustos-Montes, DeMeester’s client, is charged with Vargas and Hyland in the Oct. 5, 2012 fatal shooting of Christopher Baker, 21, in East Palo Alto. The gang war also claimed Stoney Gipson in San Francisco on Oct. 7, 2012, Jonathan Neri Alzacar on Jan. 14, 2013, in East Palo Alto and Lamont Darnell Coleman, 21, on Jan. 16, 2013, in East Palo Alto.
In between the murders, the defendants allegedly committed numerous other crimes including shootings and dissuading witnesses.
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