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MS-13 judge to consider protecting juror identities
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MS-13 judge to consider protecting juror identities

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A judge in the high-profile MS-13 murder case is set to determine next week whether the names or identities of prospective jurors will be hidden while the prosecution and defense seat a jury for the first of two back-to-back trials expected to begin in May at the Superior Court in Santa Maria. 

Twelve defendants — all alleged members of the transnational criminal organization — were indicted in July 2016 by a Santa Barbara County grand jury on felony counts, including murder, criminal street gang conspiracy and conspiracy to commit murder.

Investigators believe the group is responsible for 10 murders that occurred in the Santa Maria Valley from 2013 to 2016.

After a ruling in December, the defendants will be tried in two groups, with the first trial slated to begin May 4. 

The trials are expected to run consecutively, with each one taking approximately a year due to the voluminous amount of evidence, including 2.6 million files, 3,000 exhibits and at least 170 civilian and law enforcement witnesses.

The prosecution's motion, which was filed Nov. 21 under seal, seeks to block the names, addresses, spouses’ names and specific places of employment of the prospective jurors and their spouses for the first trial.

Specifically, prospective jurors would only be referred to by a number, and defendants and their attorneys would not receive a list or names or identifying information, according to Chief Deputy District Attorney Kelly Duncan in a heavily-redacted document supporting the motion. 

The specific reasons for withholding jurors' identities were redacted in the document, which cited state and federal cases involving organized crime, potential jury tampering and media exposure. 

Details in the case have been limited ever since a Superior Court judge approved a modified gag order in November 2017 that prohibits attorneys and government officials from releasing information and making public statements beyond what is already part of the record. The grand jury transcript containing the purported facts of the case was sealed in 2016. 

The high-profile case could expose the jurors to “intimidation and harassment,” which could compel them to “make decisions based on concerns about public scrutiny or fear” rather than the evidence, according to Duncan. 

In his Jan. 27 opposition to the prosecution's motion, Steven Balash, attorney for Juan Carlos Urbina Serrano, claimed seating an anonymous jury would violate his client's rights "to be presumed innocent, to a fair and public trial and to a reliable verdict." 

The motion is one of two filed recently by the prosecution team, led by Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen, to keep information under wraps as the trial draws closer.

Additionally, Bramsen filed a motion on Jan. 17 to refer to 13 prosecution witnesses with pseudonyms during public hearings in order to protect their identities, the defendants’ due process rights and comply with the gag order.

The first group to be tried in May includes Serrano and four co-defendants — Tranquilino Robles Morales, Juan Carlos Lozano Membreno, Marcos Manuel Sanchez Torres and Luis German Mejia Orellana.

Defense attorneys for three defendants separately filed motions in January to receive daily transcripts to be delivered electronically in order to keep up with evidence presented at trial.

Motions from both the prosecution and defense, including the issue of an anonymous jury, are slated to be heard at 8:30 a.m. Feb. 21 in Department 8 of Superior Court in Santa Maria.

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