A 23-year-old Los Angeles street gang member was convicted Wednesday of first-degree murder in the 1998 ambush-style slaying of LAPD Officer Filbert H. Cuesta Jr.
The Los Angeles County Superior Court jury that convicted Catarino Gonzalez Jr. will begin hearing evidence Monday on whether Gonzalez, who shot Cuesta outside a Crenshaw-area wedding celebration, should be sentenced to death or to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
After the verdict, tearful relatives of Gonzalez hurriedly left the court. As one of his sisters and his girlfriend dashed toward a restroom, their tears gave way to wails of grief that could be heard throughout the long corridor.
Another of Gonzalez's sisters said the wrong man was convicted.
"The LAPD knows he did not commit the crime," Sonia Gonzalez said outside the courtroom after the verdict was announced. "The person who committed the crime was killed a couple weeks ago. They know who did it. They're just being stupid."
Deputy Dist. Attys. Darren Levine and Loni Petersen declined to discuss the verdict, saying they would wait until the penalty phase of the trial has concluded.
But Petersen emphasized during her closing arguments that Gonzalez had confessed to Los Angeles Police Department detectives who interrogated him.
Gonzalez told detectives he shot Cuesta, but said that it was a mistake and that he was just trying to scare him, Petersen told jurors.
Defense attorney Michael Artan also declined to comment Wednesday.
During his closing arguments, Artan contended that Gonzalez gave a false confession because of intimidation from investigators.
LAPD Det. Mike Berchem, the lead investigator in the case, said Wednesday, "The verdict is what it should be," and added that there were no winners in the case.
Nodding toward the grieving Gonzalez family outside the courtroom, he said: "Their family is destroyed."
And, he added, so is the family of Cuesta, who was a 26-year-old father of two serving in the LAPD's anti-gang unit. "It's a no-win situation."
Berchem said the fact that jurors took 12 days to reach the verdict indicated that they carefully went over the more than 140 items of evidence and exhibits. Police officers packed the courtroom Wednesday, as they did during key parts of the trial.
"We are one big family, especially when you are all part of a specialized unit," said police spokesman John Pasquariello. "This is one of those things we'll never forget."
During five weeks of testimony, two key prosecution witnesses said they saw Gonzalez fire the deadly shots into the patrol car in which Cuesta and his partner, Richard Gabaldon, sat monitoring a noisy wedding celebration. One of those shots struck Cuesta in the back of the head.
A witness, who lives in an apartment near the site of the shooting in the 5300 block of Carlin Street, said she watched from her balcony as Gonzalez fired on the officers' parked car.
Defense attorneys said the woman could not have gotten a good look at the shooter because she was far away and the lighting was dim.
The other main prosecution witness was a member of Gonzalez's gang, who said he was standing in the driveway outside the wedding party when he saw Gonzalez shoot at the patrol car.
Artan said the witness made up the story to settle an old score with Gonzalez. The man blamed Gonzalez for his jaw being broken and wanted to get even, Artan said.
Prosecutors told the jury that Gonzalez had planned to kill a police officer and broadcast his intentions by spray-painting them on a wall.
The night of the attack, police were seeking Gonzalez for parole violations and in connection with graffiti that included the word "police" crossed out and the word "Termite." Prosecutors said Gonzalez goes by the moniker Termite.
The defense denied that Gonzalez wrote the graffiti and also denied that he shot Cuesta.
Gonzalez showed no emotion when the verdict was read. As the jury entered the courtroom, he glanced back at his relatives.
"He's strong," his brother said later.
After the verdict, the jurors filed out of the courtroom without looking at Gonzalez. He turned and looked back toward his brother. Though clearly shaken, Gonzalez managed a slight smile.