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As closing arguments wrapped up Friday in the Javier Limon murder case, the defense argued that Joseph Morales never ordered the killing in August 2014, contrary to the claims of his former co-defendant and West Park gang member. 

Morales, 30, a Northwest Santa Maria gang member has been on trial over the last two months for allegedly using a cellphone behind Lancaster prison bars to enlist a crew to carry out the execution of Limon over unpaid drug taxes. Limon's body was found outside the Guadalupe Dunes on Aug. 19, 2014, after being reportedly shot dead by three men--Arturo Granados, Bryan Rios and Peter Ojeda. 

Throughout trial testimony at the Santa Maria Superior Court, the defense and prosecution battled over whose witness statements were the most credible -- Morales himself, or Gregorio Agustine, who pleaded guilty in exchange for a 25-year prison sentence and his testimony against Morales. Both have implicated each other in the murder. 

During his final plea to the jury, defense attorney Michael Scott pointed out how unreliable most of the prosecution's witnesses were throughout the case, highlighting lies, speculation and statements not corroborated by evidence. 

He also reminded the jury who Agustine was -- a gang member who had power over Santa Maria and San Luis Obispo counties and a master manipulator who ordered the killing, according to Scott. After Limon's death, Agustine lied multiple times to detectives and was desperate for a deal with the prosecution, Scott argued. 

Agustine also admitted he once had ordered someone from his own gang killed due to personal issues and used the same gang members -- Granados and Rios -- to carry out his plan, Scott claimed. 

"He has the same motive to murder [Limon]" using the same people, he said.

Scott pointed to the multiple times Agustine blamed people for the murder before pinning it on Morales, while trying to minimize his own responsibility. 

"He attempted to manipulate [on stand] just as he did to the detectives," Scott said. "That polite, soft-spoken [demeanor] is the face he put on for detectives. He's a pathological liar, and his testimony couldn't convict a jaywalking ticket, let alone a special circumstances murder."

Morales' girlfriend, who agreed to extract a confession out of him by secretly recording their phone call in April 2015 to turn over to the detectives, also had too many inaccuracies in her statements, Scott continued. She, too, was scared when she was arrested and simply gave detectives whatever they wanted to hear, he claimed. 

During her call with Morales, the defendant never confessed to ordering Limon's slaying, Scott added. 

The defense attorney also pointed out that while Morales was entrenched in gang culture, he didn't have the power to collect taxes from anyone, including Limon, and only worked with him for the purpose of making drug deals. 

"[Morales] is a hustler but not a killer," claimed Scott, who added the text messages Morales sent to his colleagues about "setting up Limon" were to facilitate drug deals and regulate business. 

In his final remarks, Scott argued the prosecution could have pursued Morales on gang and drug charges but not for murder, as they "took on more than they should," and went after the man who wasn't even at the murder scene.

"Limon didn't deserve to die, no matter how flawed his lifestyle was," Scott said, "but convicting an innocent man will not compensate [Limon's family's] losses, and the right decision is to vote not guilty." 

The jury began deliberations in the case just before noon Friday and are expected to return Tuesday to continue deliberating.

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Gina Kim covers crime and courts for Santa Maria Times. Follow her on Twitter @gina_k210

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Courts/Public Safety Reporter