A defense attorney Thursday sought to link a high school football player gunned down near his Los Angeles home to a local gang embroiled in a bitter war with a rival group.
When he was killed, Jamiel Shaw II, 17, was wearing a red belt emblazoned with black skulls and a crudely written "20," used by the Rollin' 20s, a Bloods gang, a police officer testified during a downtown Los Angeles court hearing. The officer, a gang expert, said images kept on Jamiel's iPod also included symbols associated with the same gang and other signs disparaging its rivals.
The testimony came shortly before Superior Court Judge Bob S. Bowers Jr. ruled that there was enough evidence for Pedro Espinoza, 19, to stand trial for the slaying.
The portrayal of Jamiel as a possible gang member -- a depiction questioned by detectives -- is a stark departure from the picture of a trouble-free athlete destined for top colleges that emerged immediately after the March 2 killing.
His death, allegedly at the hands of a Latino gang member, touched off a fierce debate over the role that race has played in recent violence against blacks. When authorities identified the suspect as an illegal immigrant, a public outcry led Jamiel's family and others to push for a change to a controversial policy that limits when Los Angeles police officers can inquire about someone's citizenship status.
But in recent weeks, some have questioned whether Jamiel's alleged gang associations may have had more to do with the killing than race.
"We still support the family and want to make sure that justice is done, but we can no longer support the belief that Shaw was targeted because of his race," Najee Ali, director of Project Islamic Hope, said after Thursday's hearing.
Jamiel's family, however, has vigorously denied that he was a gang member and is still hoping prosecutors will file hate crime charges in the case. On Thursday, Jamiel's mother said the allegation that her son was in a gang has caused fresh pain. "I think it's wrong," said Army Sgt. Anita Shaw. "Why would you make the victim the guilty party?"
During the preliminary hearing Thursday, a neighbor of Jamiel's testified that the teenager had friends in the Rollin' 20s and was known by the nickname "Deuces Wild."
Juan Torres said he asked Jamiel several times about the nickname. The young athlete, he said, always denied that he was a member of the gang.
Espinoza's attorney, Deputy Public Defender Jorge Guzman, presented a photograph of graffiti painted on the road near the site of the shooting. The graffiti included the gang's insignia and "2 Wild," a shorthand for "Deuces Wild," he said.
Under questioning by Guzman, LAPD Det. Mark Holguin acknowledged that Jamiel's girlfriend told police he was a gang member. But the detective also said the victim had never been arrested and had never been seen by police with gang members.
"Because someone says someone's a gang member doesn't mean they are," he said.
After the hearing, Jamiel's father said the issue should not deflect attention from the issues of racial violence and illegal immigration already raised by the killing.
Jamiel Shaw Sr. said his son was never in a gang.
"He was just a regular kid growing up in the neighborhood," Shaw Sr. said. "He wasn't the pope sprinkling everyone, but at the same time my son has never even been suspended from school."
During Thursday's hearing, prosecutors focused their attention on Espinoza's reputed ties to the 18th Street gang. On a projector screen, Deputy Dist. Atty. Halim Dhanidina showed a photograph of a large "18" tattoo covering Espinoza's back. A much smaller "18" tattoo was etched near his left eye.
The letters "BK" were tattooed behind his left ear. LAPD Officer Winston Lee, a gang expert, testified that the initials stood for "Blood Killer."
The 18th Street gang, he said, includes members from different races. Lee said the gang has long been at war with Bloods, but does business with other black gangs. Jamiel lived in the Arlington Heights neighborhood, an area claimed by the Rollin' 20s Bloods gang, he said.
Torres, Jamiel's neighbor who also knew Espinoza from high school, testified that he spoke to Espinoza several days after the shooting and told him that someone had been killed in the neighborhood.
Espinoza replied: "BK all day. I'm going to wipe all the Bloods out," Torres told the court.
Espinoza has pleaded not guilty. He is scheduled to be arraigned July 3.