Gang member sentenced to die in star athlete’s killing


Los Angeles Times

Pedro Espinoza took pride in his gang affiliation.

The 18th Street gang member, with slick black hair and tattoos on his neck and arms, once bragged to a parole supervisor that he aspired to land on death row for his allegiance, prosecutors said.

On Friday afternoon, Espinoza was granted his wish.

The 23-year-old was sentenced to death for the 2008 murder of Jamiel Shaw II, a standout football prospect for Los Angeles High School who was killed as he walked home from a friend’s house.

Espinoza sat silent and stone-faced as Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Ronald Rose handed down the sentence, showing no reaction.

Some of Shaw’s family members wore red to the courtroom — the color that fueled Espinoza’s violence — and fought tears during the nearly three-hour hearing. “It’ll be OK. This is going our way,” one family member said, comforting a relative during a midday recess.

The sentence comes nearly five months after a jury found Espinoza guilty of fatally shooting Shaw, a star high school running back who was expected to field scholarship offers from colleges across the country.

Prosecutors say Espinoza spotted Shaw’s red Spider-Man backpack and assumed he was a member of the Rolling 20s, a rival gang. He approached Shaw on the street, just feet from the student’s home, and shot him once in the abdomen before walking up to him and shooting him again — this time in the head, execution-style.

Espinoza’s attorney argued that his client had not received a fair trial and that his own defense efforts had been inadequate, an assertion that Rose rejected.

“It’s not uncommon for attorneys to attempt to fall on their swords in order to save their client’s life,” Rose said, denying the defense’s motion for a mistrial.

On nearly half a dozen instances, Espinoza’s lawyer Csaba Palfi was delayed by requests for discussion by his client, who flipped through a large legal folder to double-check court papers as the judge read off the facts of the case.

“The defendant is a very intelligent individual, who through his refusal to cooperate with his own attorneys has tried to establish that his attorneys are incompetent,” Rose said to Palfi. “But this was a complex case that, frankly, was very difficult for the defense due to the overwhelming evidence of their client’s guilt.”

Palfi argued that giving Espinoza the death penalty would do nothing to address the larger problem of gang violence.

“We can kill him,” Palfi appealed to the judge, pausing to take a sip of water. “But it’s not going to ... fix anything.”

Shaw’s family members told the judge that they were torn on whether they would be able to forgive his killer. In a statement read by an aunt, Shaw’s 13-year-old brother asked Espinoza how he could justify the killing. Shaw’s mother, fighting tears, said she is not sure her Christian faith is strong enough to allow her to forgive her son’s murderer.

In the final victim impact statement, the slain student’s father made it clear that, for him, forgiveness is not an option.

“He needs the death penalty, to sit on death row for the rest of his life until he dies,” the father said, angrily pointing a finger at Espinoza. “And from that day on, he can rot in hell.”

That prompted a broad smile from Espinoza, who turned to face Jamiel Shaw Sr. and defiantly smirked at him until the victim’s father had returned to his seat in the audience.

Espinoza showed no remorse after the judge’s ruling, which included a concurrent 25-years-to-life sentence.

When the judge informed Espinoza that he would have to pay $7,500 in restitution to the Shaw family, the defendant turned to his lawyer and — loudly and profanely — said he had no intention of paying.

“I hate him, just thinking about him...” Shaw’s father said to reporters after the verdict. “Forgiveness is the last thing on my mind.”

But as the Shaw family held a triumphant new conference, Espinoza’s relatives left the courtroom in silence. Family members walked out arm-in-arm, largely unnoticed, their eyes red with tears.