An illegal alien from Oaxaca, Mexico, was convicted Tuesday of being an accessory to the murder of Greg Nakatani, a 23-year-old engineer who was slain last fall after an argument outside a Leucadia taco shop.
A North County Superior Court jury deliberated for less than five hours before returning the guilty verdict against Ildefonso Perez Martinez. Prosecutors said Martinez, 25, a construction worker living in Encinitas before his arrest in November, faces three years in prison for the single felony count.
Nakatani, a mechanical engineer for General Dynamics pursuing a master's degree at UC San Diego, was gunned down Sept. 20 outside Alfonso's Taco Shop on Old Highway 101, not far from his La Costa condominium.
According to witnesses, the shooting occurred in a parking lot as Nakatani was quarreling with Martinez and another man over a small dent the men's car door had made in the side of his pickup truck. The suspected killer, Abel Yescas Lopez, is still at large and is being sought with the help of Mexican authorities in Oaxaca.
Family Charged Bungling
The murder investigation made headlines late last year after Nakatani's parents charged that the case had been bungled by the San Diego County district attorney's office.
In particular, Alexander and Jane Nakatani were angered that Martinez was initially released after a Sheriff's Department investigation revealed he was present at the shooting but did not fire the bullets that killed their son. The couple complained that Martinez should have been charged as an accessory--as he ultimately was--and pointed out that he could have helped investigators find Yescas.
The Nakatanis, who live in San Jose, sought the help of Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) and Rep. Norm Mineta (D-San Jose) in attempting to pressure the supervising deputy district attorney in North County, Philip Walden, to prosecute Martinez.
The effort paid off. After the Nakatanis met with Dist. Atty. Edwin Miller in November, Martinez was rearrested on El Camino Real in Encinitas, where he was living in his car.
'Victim of Politics'
After the jury's verdict was announced Tuesday, defense attorney John Jimenez said that his client had been wrongly accused and was the "innocent victim of politics."
"I think vengeance has been had by those seeking it," Jimenez said. "I'm very disappointed. This was a highly political case and my client unfortunately paid the price."
Deputy Dist. Atty. Timothy Casserly, meanwhile, said he was "very pleased" with the conviction and said he believed the jury was persuaded to return a guilty verdict because Martinez initially lied about the shooting to detectives.
"They just didn't buy (Martinez's) story," Casserly said. "It didn't make a lot of sense and it wasn't persuasive."
During the trial, which lasted a week, Casserly said he was required to prove four things to win a conviction on the charge of accessory after the fact--that someone other than the defendant had committed a felony; that the defendant knew the person had committed that felony; that the defendant harbored, concealed or aided that person, and that the harboring, concealing or aiding was done with the specific intent that the person might evade arrest.
Testimony on Bragging
Casserly established first that Martinez had driven the car the two men fled in after the shooting and had initially lied to sheriff's detectives about being at the scene. The prosecutor also presented two witnesses who testified that Martinez and Yescas had bragged about the killing at a rodeo they attended in Encinitas a day later.
Jimenez used the legal concept of "duress" to defend Martinez against the accessory charge. He argued that Martinez was forced to help Yescas escape because Yescas had threatened him with the gun after shooting Nakatani.
Martinez testified through a translator that he feared Yescas would shoot him with the .22-caliber pistol if he disobeyed his order to drive away.
It was also threats from Yescas that prompted Martinez to initially lie to investigators about his involvement in the shooting, the defense attorney argued.
Superior Court Judge Herbert Hoffman set sentencing for April 28.