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MS-13 trial postponed until March 2021 due to pandemic

MS-13 trial postponed until March 2021 due to pandemic

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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 jury trial for five alleged MS-13 gang members was postponed to March 2021 after a Santa Barbara County Superior Court judge on Friday granted a motion from one of the attorneys requesting the delay due to COVID-19

Attorney Steven Balash, who represents Juan Carlos Urbina Serrano, argued for the postponement based on the continued risk of the coronavirus along with social distancing requirements, which he said would make holding a trial inside the courtroom impossible. 

Additionally, Balash, who is 83, noted several other reasons in his motion, including the fact that he and members of the jury, some of whom will be over 65 years old, are at risk due to their ages. 

The case involves 17 alleged members of the transnational criminal organization MS-13 who were arrested March 2016 and are each accused of dozens of gang-related crimes. Ten of the defendants are charged in the killings of 10 people in the Santa Maria Valley from 2013 to 2016. Two others are facing lesser charges, while five others have pleaded out or were sentenced. 

The trial had been set to start on Dec. 7 after having been delayed four other times this year. 

"The [coronavirus] situation, locally and nationally, has continued to deteriorate," said Judge John McGregor, citing the number of people needed inside the courtroom at any given time and the trial's complexity. "It continues to be a case where the discovery is not measured in gigabytes but terabytes and [with thousands of potential jurors]." 

A hearing on the motion, which Balash filed Oct. 9, was conducted in person at the Santa Maria court, where plexiglass separated McGregor and court staff. Attorneys were spaced throughout the courtroom, and defendants, wearing collared shirts and slacks, were confined to a glassed-off room. All in attendance wore masks. 

Before its start, the hearing was moved from Department 8 to Department 9 to accommodate physical spacing. 

Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen, who requested the March 2021 date, said the court would need to accommodate at least 56 people in the courtroom, including the defendants, translators, bailiffs, court staff, attorneys and news media before the trial could start. 

McGregor noted no written opposition to Balash's motion, although attorneys for the four other defendants, including Adrian Andrade, Stephen Dunkle, Andrew Jennings and James Ames, verbally objected in court and stated their clients were ready for trial. 

In December, McGregor ordered the 10 defendants split into two groups of five each, with the groups holding separate back-to-back trials that are expected to last up to a year each. 

Opening trial motions for the first group — which includes Serrano, Juan Carlos Lozano Membreno, Marcos Manuel Sanchez Torres, Tranquilino Robles Morales and Luis German Mejia Orellana — began in March, but the pandemic struck, according to Bramsen. 

Through Dunkle, his attorney, Torres filed a motion on June 2 requesting the trial move to a bigger facility to accommodate social distancing, with the other four defendants joining the motion. 

On July 11, one day after the first group appeared in court, one of the defendants exhibited symptoms of the coronavirus and later tested positive for the disease, according to court records. 

Then on Sept. 18, one or more defendants in the first group was in quarantine due to exposure to a Santa Barbara County Jail inmate who tested positive for the coronavirus, records show. 

"The trial of one defendant poses an unconscionable risk of physical harm to the parties, the court, and defendants themselves," Balash wrote in his motion. "Public health concerns trump the right to a speedy trial."

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The following is taken from the Santa Maria Police Department's calls-for-service log and the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office daily arrest log. Those appearing as "arrested" are only suspected of the crime indicated but are presumed innocent.

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