Jurors in the federal hate crime case against five members of a Highland Park gang Thursday began deliberating a question that could have implications for race relations in Los Angeles: Did a Latino street gang launch a campaign of violence to remove black people from their neighborhoods?
Defense attorneys claimed that police had concocted the conspiracy by tying together random attacks committed largely by unknown perpetrators -- thus inflating common street crime into a conspiracy against civil rights.
"This indictment was meant to grab headlines," said Manuel Araujo, representing Gilbert "Lucky" Saldana. "It was based on a fiction."
Araujo said the foundation of the case was "two rotten logs" -- a pair of imprisoned gang members who would say anything to reduce their sentences.
"My client is no angel," Araujo said. "He is a gang member. He has been tagging. But the evidence is clear he is not guilty of the charges in the indictment."
Saldana is accused of murdering a black man who was parking his car one night in 1999. The two witnesses at issue -- Jesse Diaz and Jose de la Cruz -- testified that they were with Saldana and three other Avenues gang members when they came upon the man and decided to kill him.
Araujo argued Wednesday that his client was not there, nor were the witnesses. De la Cruz, who was convicted in state court for the murder, was coerced into confessing by police and, once in prison, grew desperate to get his sentence reduced, Araujo said.
Araujo pointed out inconsistencies between the witnesses' testimonies and between the stories they gave to a federal grand jury and their tales at trial. He argued that the physical evidence did not support the details they gave of the killing.
Araujo called a Los Angeles police lieutenant a liar after the officer testified that he saw gang graffiti that included racial epithets, and questioned why officers never photographed any of it. Sonia Chahin, defense attorney for Alejandro "Bird" Martinez, questioned why the prosecution did not call forward more victims who could specifically identify the defendants as their attackers.
"This conspiracy supposedly lasted for six years," she said. "Why don't we have people coming in and saying, 'That guy, right there, he's the one who called me the N-word.' "
The prosecution came back swinging Thursday morning, reminding jurors of various witnesses who took the stand to tell unsettling stories of being attacked, called racial epithets and told to leave Highland Park.
The indictment lists nearly two dozen incidents, including three murders, numerous beatings and verbal assaults between 1995 and 2000. On trial with Saldana and Martinez are Porfirio "Dreamer" Avila and Fernando "Sneaky" Cazares. Another defendant, Merced "Shadow" Cambero, is a fugitive.
For a guilty verdict, the jurors must find that the attacks were part of a conspiracy to violate the victims' right to live where they please and to use state-administered "facilities" -- in this case, the street.
In court motions, prosecutors argued that the Mexican Mafia, a race-based prison gang, ordered the Avenues to get blacks out of the neighborhood. But U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson barred such testimony as prejudicial.
In his closing argument, Assistant U.S. Atty. Alex Bustamante stood by his two key witnesses: the Avenues members who turned on their cohorts.
"These gang members only tell their homeboys what they're doing," he said. "Swans don't swim in the gutter. The inside view comes from homeboys, not choirboys."
He said their testimony changed over time because they first tried to protect their friends.
Bustamante also replayed a key piece of evidence: a telephone conversation between one of the defendants, Avila, and a gang member named Dusty Chavez that was recorded in County Jail. The conversation took place shortly after the December 2000 killing of a black man named Christopher Bowser.
On the tape, they talk about how Martinez robbed Bowser a week before. Twice Avila says they were messing up "some mayates," a Spanish-language slur against blacks. He then tells Chavez that Martinez was arrested after Bowser went to police.
Prosecutors argue that what Avila says next referred to Bowser.
"That fool is gone," Avila says.