A 17-year-old gang member whose lawyer tried the unusual legal tactic of having only a judge, rather than a jury, hear his case was convicted Thursday of two charges of second-degree murder stemming from a shoot-out between rival gangs in Santa Ana last September.
Superior Judge John J. Ryan ruled that Jason Garcia of Los Angeles, a member of the Diamond Street gang, shot and killed Anthony Silerio and aided and abetted in the fatal shooting of Frank Villa last Sept. 8. Both victims were 21 and members of F Troop, a Santa Ana gang, police said.
Defense attorney Carl Dresselhaus said outside court that he felt that at a time of increasing publicity about the criminal activities of street gangs, Garcia would be better off being tried only by Ryan.
"I've done a lot of jury trials in the past, but for years my hobby is staying away from jury trials," the lawyer said.
Avoiding 'Emotional' Jurors
"The judge doesn't get carried away by the bad pictures" of murder victims, as an emotional juror might, he said. "The (murder victims) always look bad" in such pictures, which are displayed for jurors at trials, he added.
Dresselhaus said he believed the non-jury tactic did not hurt Garcia because Ryan "seemed to be wanting to give the defendant a break by calling (the shootings) spur-of-the-moment, taking away premeditation and (a) first-degree (murder verdict)." Garcia had been charged with first-degree murder.
Dresselhaus argued that the shootings were self-defense on the part of gang members who feared for their lives, and that the actual shooter was not Garcia but a Diamond Street member who was never caught.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Mike Maguire said Dresselhaus' request for the judge not to use jurors "caught me by surprise," but that he decided not to oppose it.
Maguire said that such a request "doesn't happen that often," but when it does, "I only have to satisfy one person, instead of 12."
Maguire said Dresselhaus might have decided not to try the case before a jury because of uneasiness about having people unaccustomed to hearing the gory details of gang activity subjected to testimony from gang members, including those who testified on Garcia's behalf.
Other lawyers said that attorneys sometimes request non-jury trials when the legal issues are so complex that they think only a judge could understand them, or when the crime charged is so repugnant it could prejudice jurors against a client. But they said it is rare for a lawyer to request a judge-only trial when a defendant is charged with murder.
One difference in the way the trials are handled was apparent when the verdict was pronounced. Rather than the simple "guilty" that is voiced at a jury trial, Ryan spelled out the reasons for his findings.
He said some of the testimony from defense witnesses was "incredible," and, addressing Garcia, said that "on count one, the evidence proved you were the shooter" who killed Silerio.
Ryan also convicted Garcia of a second count of second-degree murder, as well as the attempted murder of two other members of the F Troop gang, assault with a firearm, inflicting great bodily injury and conspiring to commit a breach of the peace. Garcia could be sentenced to 30 years in prison at his sentencing April 5.
Another defendant, Ray Pina, is slated for trial May 6 on the same charges. But because Pina is 23 and the prosecutor has added a "special circumstance" allegation stemming from multiple deaths, he could face the death penalty.
Ryan said testimony showed that Garcia was part of a group of Diamond Street gang members who drove to Santa Ana in search of a party and around 3 a.m. began cruising in a three-car caravan through streets that F Troop considers its home turf.
When F Troop members chased their rivals, they caught the car in which Garcia was riding, and the shooting ensued.