MS-13 judge to consider protecting juror identities

Jose Balmore Lainez, Jose Ricardo Saravia Lainez, Enedina Tomas and Mayra Ortega appear in Superior Court in Santa Maria for an arraignment hearing in March 2016. 

A judge on Friday denied a motion by Santa Maria prosecutors to consolidate two groups of five defendants in the MS-13 gang murder trial. 

Superior Court Judge John McGregor upheld the July 12 trial start date for the first group of five defendants and approved several dates for hearings, including May 28 to hear a ballistics-related motion, June 4 for a jury questionnaire issue and June 28 for evidence motions.

The second group of defendants does not have a trial start date but is scheduled for a case management conference on July 14. 

McGregor denied the request filed by Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen, citing a lack of funding for a venue large enough to accommodate all 10 defendants, who appeared in Department 9 wearing blue jumpsuits behind a glass wall. The hearing Friday was broadcast by video into Department 8, where spectators sat in numbered, socially distanced seats due to COVID-19 health measures. 

"The people filed a motion to consolidate based upon the possibility that the court securing a larger facility [would be] to provide a socially distanced 10-defendant trial," McGregor said. "Such facility has not been secured." He added that he would allow the request to be heard again if circumstances change. 

The 10 defendants were arrested in March 2016 following an investigation into 10 homicides that occurred in the Santa Maria Valley from 2013 to 2016. They each face dozens of charges, including murder, to which they have pleaded not guilty. 

In December 2019, McGregor split the defendants into two groups, citing their right to a fair trial. 

During Friday's hearing, Bramsen argued for justice in the case beset by years of delays, including the coronavirus pandemic. 

"The emotional toll of multiple trials, multiple sentences is immeasurable," Bramsen said. "The justice system will also suffer. There just aren't very many trial courts in Santa Barbara County." 

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