A judge on Tuesday struck down a request to dismiss indictment charges made by attorneys representing defendants believed to have ties to the transnational gang MS-13, citing what he ruled to be sufficient evidence used to support the charges and special allegations.
Arrested in March 2016 by the Santa Maria Police during the overnight Operation Matador sting, the defendants face 50 felony counts of murder, conspiracy to commit murder and criminal street gang activity. Linked to 10 homicides that spanned three years, the men were indicted in July 2016 by a Santa Barbara County civil grand jury.
At a Monday morning public hearing, attorneys representing 11 defendants appeared before Judge John McGregor alleging that inadmissible evidence — particularly case-specific hearsay regarding alleged gang affiliations and a "suggestive" photographic lineup — was improperly considered before the indictments were handed down.
Despite attorney Stephen Dunkle's argument that testimony from a police detective serving as an expert on criminal street gangs should be considered invalid, McGregor ruled that sufficient evidence regarding the matter had already been admitted before the grand jury. The admitted evidence could then be used to "support [the gang expert's] opinion that the actors were MS-13 gang members and committed both [prior] offenses."
Claims by Juan Carlos Lozano Membreno's attorney Adrian Andrade — that the photographic lineup presented to one of the witnesses was "suggestive" and "unfair" — were similarly denied. According to McGregor, law enforcement reduced the possibility of suggestiveness by presenting the mugshots in a group environment and explaining to the witness that the suspect or suspects may or may not have been in the lineup.
McGregor added that even if the evidence had been excluded at trial, it "does not support the motion to dismiss as there is sufficient competent evidence to support all of the charged crimes alleged in the indictment."
Pointing to evidence of sharing guns, vehicles and cellphones to the small number of local MS-13 members, McGregor said the "panoramic" nature of the evidence shows that "each defendant ... agreed with other gang members to kill rival gang members and those who disrespected [MS-13.]"
The evidence, he said, indicates that the perpetrators of the murders and attempted murders were MS-13 gang members locally, all part of a single gang operating as part of a "larger umbrella conspiracy."
Specific reasons for his denial were not discussed, with McGregor explaining they are based on and require disclosure of evidence presented to the grand jury that is subject to the court's sealing order.
The case will reconvene at 8:30 a.m. March 15.
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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