Two witnesses gave dramatic accounts Wednesday of how a high school football star was gunned down earlier this year near his Los Angeles home, opening a tense courtroom hearing packed with relatives of the victim and the alleged gunman.
Jamiel Shaw II, 17, was talking to his girlfriend on a cellphone when she overheard a voice ask him “Where are you from?” the teenage girl testified. There was no response and then the line went dead, she said.
Another witness testified that she watched a lone, hooded gunman approach Shaw on the street near his Arlington Heights home and fire a single shot. When Shaw fell, the gunman walked around him and delivered a final close-range shot to his head, she said.
“I saw the sparks from the gun,” said Tiffiney Johnson, a neighbor of Shaw who at one point broke down and cried on the witness stand. “I froze and was in total shock.”
As Johnson spoke at the preliminary hearing in Los Angeles County Superior Court, a large photo of a smiling Shaw beamed down from a projector screen. His mother and father, wearing white T-shirts emblazoned with photos of their son, sat in the courtroom’s front row, occasionally dabbing at their eyes.
“It’s hard,” said his mother, Army Sgt. Anita Shaw, who was stationed in Iraq when she heard news of her son’s death. “It’s like we’re living it again.”
The hearing in downtown Los Angeles marks the first opportunity for prosecutors to present evidence publicly in their murder case against Pedro Espinoza, a 19-year-old Latino gang member who authorities say was in the country illegally when he allegedly gunned down Shaw, who was black.
The March 2 slaying rekindled a fierce debate over the role that race has played in recent violence against blacks and galvanized opposition to a controversial policy that limits when Los Angeles police officers can inquire about someone’s citizenship status.
At the end of testimony, which is expected to last at least one more day, Judge Bob S. Bowers Jr. will rule whether prosecutors have shown there is enough evidence to try Espinoza for murder.
Espinoza’s defense attorney attempted several times during the morning hearing to ask Shaw’s 14-year-old girlfriend whether he belonged to a gang. But after objections from prosecutors, the judge would not allow the girl to answer.
One of the prosecution’s key witnesses suggested that the killing was gang-motivated.
Yisania Sanchez, a friend of Espinoza, testified that she drove him and another unidentified friend to the neighborhood around the time Shaw was shot.
Sanchez, her eyes cast downward, testified that they saw an African American man walking on the sidewalk.
Espinoza, she testified, got out of the car to walk to a friend’s house to get some money. Later, she heard a gunshot and a scream. When Espinoza got back in, she said, the passenger in the back seat asked him: “Where was he from?”
Espinoza, she testified, replied: “He was from 20s,” referring to a street gang called the Rollin’ 20s. Sanchez said Espinoza is a member of the 18th Street gang.
Espinoza, slightly built with a shaved head, sat with his hands shackled to a waist chain. He showed little emotion during the day’s testimony.
Shaw’s family insisted after the hearing that the Los Angeles High School running back was never in a gang -- noting that police said the same thing right after the killing. They said he had a great future ahead of him and was popular with everyone in their neighborhood, -- gang members or not.
“We know he wasn’t in a gang,” said the victim’s father, Jamiel Shaw Sr. “He has never been arrested. He’s never been suspended from school.”
As prosecutors sought to prove that Espinoza was at the scene of the shooting, they also questioned Jose Torres, a neighbor of the Shaws who said a young Latino approached his apartment front door and asked to see his son moments before shots were fired. His son was not home, he said.
A Los Angeles Police Department homicide detective testified that Torres initially told police that the stranger identified himself as Pedro. But Torres denied the police account on Wednesday, insisting in court that the stranger never told him his name.
He also denied ever telling detectives that he had seen the man return to a car matching the vehicle Sanchez said she was driving with Espinoza as a passenger that night.
“I drew the drapes and lay down,” Torres said through a Spanish-language court interpreter. He said he was not able to identify the man and acknowledged that he was afraid for himself and his family.
The hearing is scheduled to continue today.