A 23-year-old gang member who shot and killed a high school football star he mistook for a rival gangster in 2008 should be put to death, a Los Angeles jury decided Wednesday.
Jurors reached the verdict after about a week of testimony in the penalty phase of the trial for Pedro Espinoza, a member of the 18th Street gang. The panel was asked to decide what punishment Espinoza should receive for the slaying of 17-year-old Jamiel Shaw II.
Prosecutors said Shaw was killed execution-style because he was a young black male carrying a red Spider-Man backpack, which led Espinoza to believe he was a Bloods gang member. The same jury earlier this month convicted Espinoza of first-degree murder in Shaw’s death and found true special allegations that he acted as part of a gang and personally discharged a firearm, making him subject to the death penalty.
Espinoza, hair slicked back on his once-shaved head with the tattoo “BK” — for Blood Killer — still visible behind his left ear, looked up at the ceiling just before the verdict was read and bit his lips. He showed no reaction at the verdict.
In the gallery, a smile spread across Shaw’s mother’s face and his father nodded his head. Most family members wore red, which they previously said was in protest of Espinoza.
“I hope he leaves prison the same way my son came into the mortuary — in a casket,” the teen’s father, Jamiel Shaw Sr., said outside court.
He quietly told his deceased son during the verdict: “We did it. Your life wasn’t in vain.”
The younger Shaw was shot down the street from his Arlington Heights home. Espinoza jumped out of a car and asked the teen for his gang affiliation and fired a shot into his stomach. He then walked around Shaw’s body and fired a second time into his head, prosecutors said.
During the penalty phase, prosecutors called to the stand jail guards to attest to Espinoza’s continued violent behavior even after he was arrested on murder charges. He assaulted a fellow inmate with a razor and attacked a sheriff’s deputy, Deputy Dist. Atty. Bobby Grace said.
Jurors also heard testimony from probation officers from Espinoza’s days at juvenile camp. One of them recalled how during an exercise in a counseling session, Espinoza was asked to choose a color. He chose his gang’s color, blue, and said he would choose it even if it meant being sent to death row, according to testimony, prosecutors said.
“It shows the defendant had aspired to get where he is today,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Allyson Ostrowski said after Wednesday’s verdict.
Espinoza’s defense attorney, Csaba Palfi, said his client was a product of a difficult, underprivileged youth. His mother came to the U.S. illegally when Espinoza was a baby to escape an abusive partner, only to end up with another who was just as abusive, Palfi said.
The attorney said that in contrast with Shaw’s upbringing, it was clear what led Espinoza down the criminal path.
Shaw “had a loving family, a supportive family who made sure he made good choices, made good friends. Pedro didn’t have that,” Palfi said outside court.
He also painted his client as but a small piece of a larger social problem.
“Killing Mr. Espinoza in however many years ... is not going to fix anything, it’s not going to stop the young men and women from joining gangs,” he said.
Espinoza is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 21.