Boy, 15, Convicted of Murder in Orange County

From a Times Staff Writer

A 15-year-old boy was found guilty Tuesday in the murder of a Seal Beach gas station clerk, becoming the first juvenile in Orange County convicted under a new state law that allows children as young as 14 to be punished as adults for the most serious crimes.

Mario Luis Ortiz, a baby-faced member of a Long Beach gang, faces up to 38 years to life in state prison. He will be sentenced in January by Orange County Superior Court Judge Eileen C. Moore.

Ortiz, who was 14 when the crime occurred, was charged as an accomplice during a robbery at an Arco station. He was not the gunman; a 19-year-old companion was convicted last week of firing the fatal shots.

Ortiz was prosecuted under a law, in effect since January, that lowered to 14 the age at which youths can be tried and punished as adults for crimes such as murder and robbery. The age limit previously was 16.

The law is part of a national movement targeting juvenile crime that some critics say puts too much emphasis on prison instead of rehabilitation.

But the mother of slain night clerk Danette Garrett said she was glad Ortiz was charged as an adult.

"He acts like a very immature little boy. But he did an adult job. It's very cold--and for a child," said Joann Garrett, who lives in Redlands.

Jurors deliberated 75 minutes before convicting Ortiz of murder and robbery, plus related allegations that he used a handgun and sought to benefit his gang.

The jury foreman said jurors knew the defendant's age, but not that he was the county's youngest murder defendant tried in adult court.

"It's a sad state of affairs that somebody of this age could commit a crime of that nature," said jury foreman John Woelfel. "I think it sends a strong message to youth."

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