MS-13 judge to consider protecting juror identities

Juan Carlos Urbina Serrano, seated left, appears at the Superior Court in Santa Maria for a preliminary hearing setting in April 2016. Serrano is opposing the prosecution's motion to seat an anonymous jury in the trial that is expected to begin in May.

A jury trial for a group of alleged MS-13 gang members accused of murder and other charges is slated to begin May 3 after a Santa Barbara County Superior Court judge on Friday approved a motion filed by the prosecution.

Superior Court Judge John McGregor approved the Jan. 4 motion to continue the trial for the defendants, although a separate motion was filed to combine their trial with a second group's that was scheduled to begin later this year, according to Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen, who is prosecuting the case. 

The Santa Maria courtroom where Friday's hearing was held was closed to the public. 

The total number of defendants in the two groups is 10, with five alleged MS-13 members in each group, each of whom are accused of killing at least 10 people across the Santa Maria Valley from 2013 to 2016. Two others are facing lesser charges, while five others have pleaded out or were sentenced to prison. 

McGregor split the defendants into two groups in December 2019 after their attorneys successfully argued that the lack of space in the courtroom would deprive them of their constitutional rights. 

Each trial is scheduled to occur separately and consecutively, with each one lasting a year. 

The trial for the first group — which includes Juan Carlos Urbina Serrano, Juan Carlos Lozano Membreno, Marcos Manuel Sanchez Torres, Tranquilino Robles Morales and Luis German Mejia Orellana — began in March 2020, but was delayed several times due to COVID-19. 

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

The motion to combine the two groups will be heard at 8:30 a.m. Feb. 5 in Superior Court in Santa Maria.