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120318 Joseph Morales sentencing

Former Northwest Santa Maria gang member Joseph Morales, left, listens to Judge James Voysey during his sentencing Monday at the Santa Maria Superior Court. Morales was sentenced to 55 years to life in prison for the murder of Javier Limon in 2014.

Former Northwest Santa Maria gang member Joseph Morales was sentenced to 55 years to life in prison Monday at the Santa Maria Superior Court for allegedly ordering the murder of Javier Limon, whose body was found by farmworkers near the Guadalupe Dunes in August 2014.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Cindy Gresser maintained that Morales, 30, used a cellphone from prison to orchestrate the murder of Limon, 37, — possibly due to unpaid drug debts — while the defense argued that another person ordered the hit. Morales was convicted in October of second-degree murder, with the jury also finding the special criminal street gang and firearm allegations to be true.

"With the court’s sentence, [Morales] is being held appropriately accountable for his role in Javier Limon’s death," Gresser said Monday, thanking the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office for their role in securing the conviction. Morales' actions, she said, were "committed with a complete disregard for human life" and sought to capitalize off the "culture of violence" established by the Sureño street gang.

"Our office was committed to pursuing justice for the victim’s family and will not condone this violence in our community," Gresser added. " ... It is hoped this conviction will give the victim’s family some measure of justice."

For 15 minutes on Monday, Morales sat by his attorney, Michael Scott, and watched a video where Limon's parents, sisters and son testified about how his death profoundly affected the family. "I hope that he (Morales) takes responsibility for his actions and pays for it for the rest of his life," Blanca Gonzalez-Limon, one of Limon's older sisters, told the court before playing the video.

Limon's parents, Javier and Maria Limon, remembered their only son growing up as an aspiring athlete and a good student. His father called Limon his "right hand in everything" and said the news of his death came as a shock to the entire family.

"I always remember my son as a very loving person [who] always had a lot of optimism," Limon's father said, adding that he was constantly trying to be the best version of himself. "They not only took his life but also took mine. I feel very sad about the situation."

Maria Limon said her son's murder robbed her of all her joy and caused her a pain that will never be cured — especially when cooking his favorite foods. Unlike other parents who let their children get tangled up with gang violence, Maria Limon said her son was responsible and always tried to do the right thing.

"I will always have him in my mind and in my life," she said. "I miss his love and his presence."

Another of Limon's older sisters described the love he had for his family — including for his son, also named Javier Limon — as being above anything else. "Our mom was his everything; his dad was his hero," she said. "Every time we had gatherings, he always wanted to invite everybody so they could see what kind of family they had."

"He had a lot of battles throughout his life," she said, noting Limon's occasional troubles, "but he just wanted to do his best. We're all human, and he did want to change [his life] around."

Judge James Voysey, who handed down the sentence, informed Morales of his right to appeal the court's decision. He was remanded to custody after the sentence was read.

"The sentencing was what the law required given what the jury's findings were, but I believe there were some significant issues on appeal," Scott said after the sentencing, pointing to questions regarding the sufficiency of the evidence needed to certify implied malice. "It's my hope the case will return here for another trial."

In addition to the sentence, Morales was ordered to pay more than $20,000 in restitution and fees to several members of the Limon family.

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Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga

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Education Reporter

Santa Maria Times reporter Mathew Burciaga covers education for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.