The oldest active criminal case in Los Angeles County ended Thursday when former gang leader Virgil Byars was sentenced to 49 years to life in state prison for two fatal drive-by shootings.
Byars, 27, turned himself in nearly eight years ago and has been behind bars ever since. Thursday's sentence, imposed by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Jacqueline Connor, covers two second-degree murder convictions and guilty verdicts for three assaults with a deadly weapon and the attempted murder of a jail inmate.
"We got the max," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Loren Naiman.
Defense attorney Carl Jones called the sentence unduly harsh.
"We won the case at trial," he said, referring to the jury's findings of guilt on lesser charges than originally sought by prosecutors. "The D.A. is having a tantrum trying to punish the guy through a harsh sentence."
Byars, whose crimes were among the earliest of the now-epidemic drive-by gang shootings, had rejected a plea-bargain offer from prosecutors.
He languished in jail for eight years as his case wound its way through the system, delayed by his dissatisfaction with his court-appointed lawyers and by his battle to keep tapes of his confession from being admitted as evidence against him.
Byars fired five of six lawyers who represented him and threatened several of them, court records show.
When he finally went on trial last year, jurors deadlocked and a mistrial was declared.
Byars, who said he had no memory of the crimes he was accused of because he was high on the hallucinogen PCP, was retried and found guilty of the murders last month.
Byars shot into a car and killed a rival gang member, Cornelius Harris, in 1982 in Southwest Los Angeles, wounding another passenger. Minutes later he fired into a second car, killing 17-year-old Jody Hayes and wounding two other rival gang members.
Jones, standing in for Byars' ailing attorney, Joel Isaacson, said an appeal is planned.