A Santa Barbara County Superior Court judge on Friday approved a request by Santa Maria prosecutors to postpone until April a motion to combine two groups of five defendants each in the MS-13 gang murder trial.
Judge John McGregor also rescheduled the May 3 start date of the first trial group to July 12, with pretrial motions beginning June 7.
The judge approved the request upon finding a "sufficient factual basis" to continue the motion. The decision followed a roughly two-hour case management conference, which was closed to the public, in which attorneys could not agree to a big enough space to hold the 10-defendant trial due to COVID-19 social distancing protocols.
"This case remains a classic case for joinder and [the court] is unable to consolidate a multi-defendant trial," McGregor said, adding that vaccination efforts appear to be "abating" the pandemic, but not enough to hold trials with more than one defendant. "This is a significant and different case that includes many defendants, many counts and terabytes of discovery."
A motion to combine two defendant groups in the coming MS-13 trial was filed by Santa Barbara County prosecutors last month in an effort to consolidate the case, which has dragged on for nearly five years.
McGregor noted that his ruling represents a series of motions filed over the past year in the case, which enters its sixth year and was beset numerous times by complications caused by the coronavirus pandemic over the past year.
The 10 MS-13 defendants are part of a larger group of 15 who were arrested in March 2016 as part of Operation Matador, a yearslong investigation into the killings of 10 people in the Santa Maria Valley. In July 2016, a total of 18 alleged members of the transnational criminal organization were indicted.
Fermin Rodas, a Matador defendant, was indicted separately, pleaded no contest to contempt of court on Feb. 28, 2019 and received a one-year suspended probation sentence, according to court records.
The arrests included five who were indicted on felony charges that did not include murder, but included conspiracy and gang-related charges. One of those defendants, Jose Francisco Mejia Orellana, has not been apprehended. Two additional defendants pleaded out or were sentenced to prison. Only two of the five are in custody.
The larger group included 12 defendants, two of whom were sentenced to state or federal prison, leaving the remaining 10, who are each charged with at least four dozen counts ranging from murder to conspiracy and street gang enhancements. The group was split into two trial pools in December 2019 after McGregor ruled their constitutional rights would be violated if all were tried at once in the same room due to insufficient space for the 10, each of their attorneys and interpreters.
The defendants include Marcos Manuel Sanchez Torres, Juan Carlos Urbina Serrano, Juan Carlos Lozano Membreno, Tranquilino Robles Morales and Luis German Mejia Orellana, who are in the first trial group; and Jose Balmore Saravia Lainez, Jose Ricardo Saravia Lainez, Jose Juan Sanchez Torres, Jose Narciso Escobar Hernandez and Olvin Serrano, who are in the second trial group. The trials are expected to occur consecutively, and each last up to a year, although there is not yet a start date for the second group.
The 10 defendants appeared together in Department 9 of the courthouse on Friday, along with their attorneys, Spanish language interpreters, McGregor and Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen, while Department 8 was reserved for the public, reporters and other District Attorney's Office officials who watched on a large projector screen.
Bramsen and McGregor could be heard speaking clearly, although defense attorneys for the defendants were barely audible or not heard at all.
In addition, McGregor approved Bramsen's requests to release medical records and to seal victim impact statements. A November 2017 gag order in the case prevents officials from making any statements beyond what is heard in open court.
The statements, however, indicated opposition to continuing the trial and that reading them prior to a jury verdict would affect the defendant's presumption of innocence, according to court records.
The case was rescheduled for a management conference at 8:30 a.m. on April 23 in Department 8 of Superior Court in Santa Maria.
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