After four months of testimony, a massive racketeering and murder conspiracy trial of seven MS-13 gang members in federal court in San Francisco is due to begin winding up Monday with closing arguments.
U.S. District Judge William Alsup set the closing for Monday after prosecutors rested their rebuttal case Friday morning and defense attorneys said they too had no more witnesses.
“We’ve definitely reached a milestone, haven’t we.” Alsup told the 12 jurors and five alternates. “The evidence is now complete after many months,” he said.
The closing arguments by federal prosecutors and seven defense lawyers are expected to last all week. Alsup told attorneys he expects the jurors to start deliberating Aug. 15 after he completes giving their instructions.
The defendants, most of whom are in their early 20s, were members of a branch of the MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, gang centered on the neighborhood of 20th and Mission streets in San Francisco.
All seven are accused of conspiring to racketeer, or participate in organized crime, and conspiring to commit murder in aid of racketeering.
Three are also charged with carrying out a total of four gunshot murders on San Francisco streets in 2008.
The racketeering conspiracy charge carries a sentence of up to life in prison if the defendants are convicted and the murder charges carry a mandatory life sentence. The U.S. Department of Justice decided not to seek the death penalty for the murders.
Prosecutions allege the racketeering acts included murder, attempted murder, assault, robbery, extortion and drug dealing.
They contend the gang thrived on a culture of violence, in which members maintained and increased their gang stature by hunting, attacking and killing members or perceived members of rival gangs.
“It is undisputed on the record that MS-13 was a violent gang and the main rule or the gang was the commission of violence against rivals,” prosecutors wrote in a court filing last month.
“It is hard to imagine people more predisposed to violence than members of this particular gang,” the prosecutors said.
The defendants lost a key defense argument when Alsup ruled last week that they couldn’t argue they were entrapped into committing crimes by two government informants, Honduran-born Roberta Acosta and Salvadoran-born Jaime Martinez, who posed as gang members and helped to lead the 20th Street group beginning in 2005.
Five of the seven defendants had sought to make that argument.
But Alsup said they hadn’t met the strict federal court standard for an entrapment defense, which requires proof both that a government agent induced a defendant to commit a particular crime and that the defendant was not otherwise likely to have committed the crime.
“In the court’s judgment,” Alsup wrote, “there is not sufficient trial evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that any of the defendants were induced to commit the offenses charged….and/or that said defendant was not predisposed before contact with any federal agents.”
The defendants can still use a second defense of attacking the credibility of the informants and of several fellow gang members who were indicted and became prosecution witnesses in plea bargains.
Both Acosta, who became an informant in 2005, and Martinez, who became an informant in early 2006, were themselves indicted in the course of the case.
Prosecutors withdrew Acosta, whom they had hoped would be their star witness, from testifying after learning he had lied to his handlers by failing to disclose he had taken part in eight gang-related murders in Honduras.
Acosta, whose gang name was “Little Bad Boy,” was indicted six days before the trial began April 4 on a charge of lying to federal authorities and was convicted of that charge in a brief separate trial in July.
Although he did not testify at the MS-13 trial, some recordings of gang meetings that he secretly made were admitted as evidence after being validated by other witnesses who were present at the meetings.
Martinez was indicted in July 2008 on a charge of racketeering conspiracy after being accused of car theft and pleaded guilty to that charge in a plea deal. He continued as a witness in the trial.
The seven men on trial are among 34 gang members and associates who were charged in four successive versions of an indictment in 2008 and 2009.
Eighteen others have pleaded guilty to various charges and been sentenced, and one was acquitted of charges of participating in a stolen car ring. The others are awaiting trial or sentencing.
The Mara Salvatrucha gang, whose name is a combination of the words for “gang,” “Salvadoran” and “fear us,” originated in El Salvador and Southern California. It is one of the largest street gangs in the U.S. and now has more than 10,000 members in 20 states and Central America, according to the indictments.
MS-13 members identify with gangs known as “Surenos,” whose gang color is blue, and their principal rivals are “Nortenos,” whose color is red. Members have gang nicknames and sometimes know each other only by those names, prosecutors have said.
In the murder charges, Erick Lopez, known as “Spooky,” is accused of gunning down Ernad Joldic, 21, and Phillip Ng, 24, in San Francisco’s Excelsior District on March 29, 2008, allegedly in revenge for the shooting of an MS-13 gang member the previous day.
Prosecutor Theryn Gibbons told jurors at the opening of the trial that the victims, who were wearing red, were not gang members, but “just two guys in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Jonathan Cruz-Ramirez, known as “Soldado,” 21, and Guillermo Herrera, nicknamed “Shorty,” 22, are accused of murdering Armando Estrada, a seller of fake documents who refused to pay the gang an extortion “tax,” on July 11, 2008. Estrada was gunned down at 20th and Mission streets.
Herrera is also accused of murdering Juan Rodriguez, perceived as a rival gang member, on May 31, 2008.
All seven defendants are also charged conspiring to commit assaults with dangerous weapons. Angel Guevara, known as “Peloncito,” is additionally accused of three assaults and attempted murders in 2007.