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Judge denies motions for separate trials in MS-13 murder case
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Judge denies motions for separate trials in MS-13 murder case

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MS-13 operation matador FILE

Alleged MS-13 gang members appear at Santa Maria Superior Court during a court hearing in March 2016.

Five defendants in the high-profile MS-13 murder case will be tried together in a modified courtroom at the Santa Maria Superior Court after a judge ruled against holding separate trials last week. 

The trial is slated to start Feb. 18, 2020, and is expected to last at least a year inside a Department 8 courtroom that will be renovated to accommodate a crowd of defendants, their lawyers and members of the public.

Judge John McGregor on Friday denied motions for Jose Juan Sanchez Torres, Marcos Manuel Sanchez Torres, Juan Carlos Lozano Membreno, Jose Balmore Saravia Lainez and Tranquilino Robles Morales, who were seeking separate trials after being accused of a litany of murder and gang charges.

The five defendants are among 15 arrested by Santa Maria Police in March 2016 as part of Operation Matador. Two more men were later charged in the case. All are alleged members of the transnational criminal organization MS-13.

Investigators believe the group is responsible for 10 murders that occurred in the Santa Maria Valley over a three-year period.

Attorneys for the defendants filing motions arguing their clients should be tried separately on the basis that their trials could be prejudiced by other defendants’ murder counts or, essentially, guilt by association.

Attorney J. Jeff Chambliss, who represents Jose Juan Sanchez Torres, said his client is in a “markedly different situation” because he is charged with four murder counts, which is fewer than the other nine defendants, who are all each charged with at least eight counts of murder.

Chambliss said the possibility of “prejudicial spillover” is heightened due to a “familial connection” with another defendant.

According to Santa Barbara County Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen, the two Torres defendants are brothers.

Deputy District Attorney Kelly Scott acknowledged that Chambliss’ client is charged with fewer counts but argued that evidence of his connection to the other defendants would be presented no matter what. 

“The court cannot let Mr. Torres obscure his association with MS-13 by granting severance, because his association and connection to the other conspirators will be admissible in a separate trial,” Scott said. “His right to a fair trial does not include the right to exclude relevant and competent evidence.”

Additionally, Scott said the court should consider other factors of separating trials including compromising the identities of witnesses and the integrity of the case. Splitting the trial also would require more resources, Scott said, arguing that it would be difficult to find fair and partial jurors the second time around.

One defense attorney suggested that the court could do two jury trials at the same time, one for clients charged with more homicides and another for defendants charged with less; or one trial with two juries.

Attorney Ron Bobo, who represents Jose Balmore Saravia Lainez, said each defendant has a right to a fair trial.

“Judicial economy cannot override due process,” Bobo said.

McGregor denied the motions to sever, however, stating that the defendants are alleged to be a part of the same gang and are charged with the same crimes, including Jose Juan Sanchez Torres.

 “Every one of the co-defendants identified by the defendant to be part of the same gang, harbor the same intent to kill, the same overarching conspiratorial scheme, are charged with the same crimes," McGregor said. 

The defendants are scheduled to return to Santa Maria Superior Court at 8:30 a.m. on Nov. 15 and Dec. 20.

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