The first day of a trial for five alleged MS-13 gang members accused of murder-related charges kicked off Monday in Santa Maria with a judge hearing arguments over the inclusion of autopsy-related testimony and foundational evidence.
Defendants Tranquilino Robles Morales, Juan Carlos Lozano Membreno, Juan Carlos Urbina Serrano, Marcos Manuel Sanchez Torres and Luis German Mejia Orellana are each accused of at least a dozen charges, including murder, murder conspiracy and street gang enhancements connected to 10 homicides that occurred in the Santa Maria Valley between 2013 and 2016.
Dressed in collared shirts and sitting next to each of their attorneys, all five sat grouped together at the front and to the right, in between the defendant's table, court administrators and the judge's bench, wearing headphones to communicate with their Spanish-English interpreters, who sat in the jury box on the opposite side of the Department 8 courtroom.
Everyone was required to wear masks due to COVID-19 protocols.
Monday’s hearing began with Judge John McGregor approving media coverage of the trial, on the condition that only still photographs are taken and that they do not show the defendants in shackles or anything depicting their custody status.
The court moved into motions in limine, which seek to either include or exclude testimony or evidence for trial.
McGregor heard prosecution arguments regarding a request to allow testimony from Sheriff-Coroner Dr. Manuel Montez on a report prepared by another official who conducted an autopsy, even though Montez was present during the examination.
After objections from defense attorneys on the credibility of Montez reading someone else's report, McGregor ruled to limit the amount of time allowed to cross-examine Montez.
Prosecution then moved into introducing foundational evidence for the trial, although a July 2016 order sealing the grand jury transcript prohibited officials from referring to specific facts in the case.
Instead, the prosecution team generally described exhibit numbers for evidence that allegedly connects defendants to certain cellphone numbers using social media accounts, voice identification and other methods.
After a request by Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen, McGregor ruled on the trial moving into closed session to sort out the facts before reopening the court to the public to hear foundational evidence motions.
The closed session hearings are expected to last between seven to 10 days, according to Bramsen. Jury selection is expected to begin Aug. 2, she added, and the trial is expected to last a year.
With the exception of the closed session hearings, the court is expected to hold a public hearing on firearms expert testimony starting at 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday at Superior Court in Santa Maria.
The five defendants are a part of a larger group of 15 who were arrested March 2016 as part of Operation Matador, which investigated the alleged MS-13 killings. A total of 18 members were indicted in July 2016.
Of those, 10 are being tried for murder, while others have pleaded out, sentenced to prison or are being tried for lesser crimes.
In December 2019, McGregor split the group of 10 into two trial groups after finding their constitutional rights would be violated due to the lack of space inside the courtroom.