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Ex-Gang Chief Convicted of Murdering 2 in 1982

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The waiting ended for former gang leader Virgil Byars on Monday when a jury convicted him of separate drive-by shootings that left two people dead and three injured eight years ago.

After a week of deliberations, the six-man, six-woman jury found him guilty of two counts of second-degree murder and three counts of assault with a deadly weapon. The prosecution had sought first-degree murder convictions with special circumstances that would have sent Byars to prison for life without possibility of parole.

Byars, 27, has been held without bail since the fall of 1982--four months after the shootings--when he turned himself in. He was not a suspect and was not being sought, authorities said.

He faces 35 years to life in prison, although it is possible that he could receive a sentence that would make him eligible for parole in less than three years. He rejected a proposed plea bargain when his trial began last month.

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“Mr. Byars has always wanted to test the system,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Loren Naiman, who prosecuted the case, said afterward, noting that Byars refused to return to the courtroom after the verdicts were read. “It appears now that he’s unhappy with the verdict.”

Wearing wire-rimmed glasses and a business suit and looking more like a mild-mannered librarian or accountant than the tough gang member he admittedly was, Byars showed no expression as the jury’s decisions were read. However, he refused to return to the courtroom for clarification of a verdict on one of the lesser charges.

“I think he perceived the gist of the verdicts,” defense attorney Victor Salerno, standing in for Byars’ ailing lawyer, told Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Jacqueline Connor. He will be sentenced May 29.

The case might have gone unnoticed as just another gang shooting, but for the fact that it is believed to be the oldest active criminal court case in Los Angeles County.

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On the surface, it appeared simple: after telephoning police to surrender “because God told me to,” Byars was charged with the shooting deaths of Cornelius Harris and Jody Hayes, allegedly members of a rival gang, and the wounding of three other people. He showed police where the shootings happened and provided details in a six-hour confession.

The delay was caused by Byars’ firing five of six attorneys appointed to represent him, his lengthy but unsuccessful battle to keep his confession from being admitted as evidence, and a trial that ended with a hung jury last year.

In some ways, Monday’s verdict was neither a victory nor a loss for either side.

Naiman said he was “disappointed . . . but satisfied that the case got to trial. It is a fair verdict. “It’s about time. The victims died eight years ago. Their families sit in utter amazement that the system could drag out so long.

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“This is not yet final,” he said. “The appeals process could take years.”

Defense attorney Joel Isaacson, who was ill and unable to be in court Monday, said by telephone that he was “relieved” that his client had not been found guilty of first-degree murder charges. He said he had hoped for a manslaughter verdict if not acquittal.

“I’m surprised that, given the gang hysteria that prevails today, a jury was able to judge the case on the facts,” he said.

Byars had been charged with two counts of first-degree murder and three counts of attempted murder. He was convicted of lesser charges of second-degree murder and assault with a deadly weapon. Prosecutors did not seek the death penalty in the special circumstances allegations.

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“We didn’t believe that he intended to kill, but that he was going to go out and shoot ‘em (rival gang members) up,” said jury foreman Michael Abbatecola,49, of Monterey Park, a postal worker.

He said the jury did not believe Byars was high on PCP, a mind-altering drug, at the time of the crimes, as he claimed. Nor did the jury base its decisions on the detailed confession Byars gave to police that was played in court, he said.

“The confession in and of itself didn’t hang him,” Abbatecola said. “It was all tied in . . . the evidence was there.”

Several jurors leaned toward manslaughter verdicts at the beginning, the foreman said. But at least one pushed, right up until the end, for first-degree murder and attempted murder verdicts.

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“I had to do a lot of meditating about it over lunch,” explained Burbank nurse Sandy Shirley, 48, who held out for the harsher verdicts. She said she finally relented “because I didn’t want to hang the jury.”

The prosecutor said he doubts that Byars will “do well” in the state prison system, given his history of violence. Since his surrender eight years ago, he has been convicted of the attempted murder of another inmate and sentenced to 12 years in prison.

He has also been involved in more than 20 jail fights, Naiman said. Court records show that several of Byars’ attorneys asked to be removed from his case after he allegedly threatened them.


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