DOWNTOWN L.A. — The attorneys representing two alleged gang members charged with brutally murdering two Santa Monica men at a birthday part at the Moose Lodge in Ocean Park argued here Thursday that eyewitness testimony placing their clients at the scene is unreliable.
The arguments came during opening statements made by the defense for Eric Nuñez, a.k.a. Ector Hugo Sanchez, and Jose Mojarro, who face two counts of murder with a special gang enhancement (using firearms during a gang crime) and a third count of assault with a deadly weapon.
A third man, William “Willie” Vasquez, who is also an alleged gang member, has been charged as well, but will not be tried at this time. All three have pleaded not guilty.
If convicted, the defendants face life sentences without parole or the death penalty.
The three, who are believed to be members of the 18th Street gang Alsace clique, are charged with the murders of Santa Monicans Hector Bonilla and Jonathan Hernandez, who were shot multiple times on March 5, 2005.
Public defender Nanzella Whitfield, representing Mojarro, described her client as friends with one of the victims — Hernandez — from their time as roommates in Juvenile Hall.
Although some identified her client as being present at the party, Whitfield argued to the jury that only four identified him as the shooter and that those four witnesses were highly suspect.
Whitfield maintained that there were three conclusions to be drawn from the evidence.
“One: Jose Mojarro is a member of the 18th Street Gang. Two: He attended a party at the Moose Lodge. And I intend to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Jose Mojarro didn’t shoot nobody,” Whitfield said.
Attorney Pierpont Milton Laidley, representing Nuñez, is basing his defense on polluted evidence and shoddy testimony that placed his client at the scene, particularly that of one of the prosecution’s main witnesses, Ramón Mendoza.
“Evidence will show Ramón Mendoza as cooperative. He talked to police numerous times, and every time his story changed,” Laidley said.
Laidley claims that the identification process police used to determine Nuñez’ presence was faulty because it included a distinctive lipstick-kiss tattoo that Nuñez has on the right side of his neck. According to Laidley, this tattoo is ubiquitous amongst gang members.
Laidley’s main defense is his assertion that his client never went to the birthday party at the Moose Lodge.
Deputy District Attorney Alan Schneider slowly and methodically described the web of fear, intimidation and violence of gang culture, and related how that came to the door of the Moose Lodge.
In the midst of 80 to 100 party-goers, Schneider said, Mojarro and Vasquez took out 9 millimeter semi-automatic weapons and shot 26 rounds at the two men, continuing to shoot after the victims lay motionless on the floor in what he describes as gang-related violence.
Both Bonilla and Hernandez were thought to be involved in the Santa Monica 13 gang, Schneider said.
Critical to his overall argument is that the atmosphere of fear engendered by the threat of gang retaliation is what has caused so many witnesses to claim they were “in the bathroom” at the time of the shootings.
It was a party gone terribly wrong. Hernandez and Bonilla were shot multiple times after three suspects got in a fight with Hernandez. Bonilla was shot as he ran to aid Hernandez.
All three suspects fled the scene. Police took Mojarro into custody July 5, 2005 after he was picked up on a parole violation. Vasquez was apprehended Oct. 6, 2005 in the 500 block of Westlake Street in Los Angeles. Nuñez, who remained at-large the longest, was caught after a violent police chase in January 2006 that ended in a hostage situation. Nobody was hurt.
The trial will continue on Monday.