Judge reschedules MS-13 murder trial for August

A group of defendants arrested in the MS-13 case appear in court in April 2016 to set a preliminary hearing date. They are: Jose Escobar Narciso Hernandez, Juan Carlos Lozano Membreno, Tranquilino Robles Morales and Juan Carlos Serrano Urbina.

Jury selection began last week in the trial for five men alleged to be members of a transnational criminal organization that are charged in connection with the deaths of nearly a dozen people in the Santa Maria area.

Selection is being held at the Santa Maria Fairpark. The trial involves five accused members of MS-13, who are charged in connection with 10 gang-related deaths in the Santa Maria Valley from 2013 to 2016, according to Santa Barbara County Superior Court officials.

Defendants include Tranquilino Robles Morales, Juan Carlos Lozano Membreno, Juan Carlos Urbina Serrano, Marcos Manuel Sanchez Torres and Luis German Mejia Orellana, who are the first group of five out of 10 defendants in the case.

The second trial group includes Jose Balmore Saravia Lainez, Jose Ricardo Saravia Lainez, Jose Juan Sanchez Torres, Jose Narciso Escobar Hernandez and Olvin Serrano.

Two defendants were sentenced to state or federal prison, leaving the remaining 10, who are charged with more than a dozen counts each, ranging from murder to conspiracy and street gang enhancements.

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The 10 were part of a larger group of 15 who were arrested during a multi-agency sting led by the Santa Maria Police Department in March 2016. A total of 17 men and women were indicted in July 2016 and split into two cases, one case that includes 12 accused of murder charges and another case with five defendants accused of lesser felonies.

In December 2019, Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge John McGregor split the 10 into two groups of five defendants each, with each trial expecting to take up to a year and run back-to-back, according to prosecutors.

All 10 men have pleaded not guilty in the upper case.

The court will hear jury hardship cases up to Sept. 3 and the actual juror oral questioning will begin Sept. 13 in Dept. 8 of Superior Court in Santa Maria, according to Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen.

Opening arguments in the trial will start as soon as a jury of 12 people and 12 alternates are chosen, which could be as early as the end of October, Bramsen added.