Nicolas Esteban had been pushed to the emotional brink by his neighbors, a jury found Wednesday, but that was no excuse for his opening fire on them, killing one and wounding two.
The panel of six men and six women found Esteban, 49, guilty of second-degree murder and other charges in a case that began with a simple traffic incident in August 1996, and got so heated over 10 days that it culminated in murder.
"I felt [Esteban] had been harassed," said juror Lynn Leverick of Tustin. "But he did actually shoot people. He lost control and fired 13 to 15 shots, and hit three people. I don't think the [victims'] family were saints, but he did run across the street with a gun."
Ironically, the traffic incident that started it all did not even involve Esteban's family but a friend of a relative who lived with them. The friend subsequently severely beat Hector Ramos, who lived across South Birch Street in Santa Ana.
Esteban's attorney, Charles F. Benninghoff, said that after the beating, Ramos' brothers vowed to get even and began a "terror campaign" against the Esteban family, pushing his client into a "siege mentality."
One brother, Rene Ramos, one day agreed to meet Esteban in the middle of the street for a fistfight. But Esteban brought an automatic handgun with him and began firing shots.
A third Ramos brother, George, was killed as he stood in the driveway of the family home. In reaching a second-degree murder verdict, the jury determined that his killing was not premeditated.
A fleeing Rene Ramos was shot in the buttocks, and Esteban was convicted of attempted murder for that. The mother of Ramoses, Delores Ramos, was shot in the head and the arm as she ran into the front yard. The jury said they believed that she was simply "at the wrong place at the wrong time" and that Esteban did not intend to kill her. They rejected an attempted murder charge and convicted Esteban of attempted voluntary manslaughter in her shooting.
"It's really sad for the Ramos family, and it is no less sad for the family of the defendant that he did this," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Elizabeth Henderson, who prosecuted the case. "All of these families' lives are essentially ruined because he couldn't control his anger."
Benninghoff said he will appeal the verdict because George Ramos' felony record was not admitted into evidence. Still, he said that a verdict less than first-degree murder is a victory for his client.
Jurors said they believed that the Ramos brothers contributed to the problem.
"It was a situation that never should have happened," said juror Glen Claxton, of Fountain Valley.
Alicia Ramos, sister of the slain man, sat in the front row with two nieces as the verdict was read. She said she was relieved that Esteban was convicted but that her family is still fearful. She said her mother, who testified during the trial, was too afraid to come back to court.
She also paid tribute to her slain brother, whom she described as "a really good man who was just starting his life."
Esteban will be sentenced Oct. 24 and faces 18 years to life in prison.