Alleged members of three East Palo Alto gangs who were indicted for murder with special circumstances in March could face the death penalty, San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said Monday.
The nine defendants -- Roberto Bustos-Montes, 24; Nina Cragg, 23; Emmanuel Hyland, 25; Tyrone Love-Lopez, 21; Eric Valencia Vargas, 20; Marvin Ware, 26; Raymond Bradford, 28; Jerry Coneal III, 19; and Miguel Angel Rivera Jr., 23 -- are among 16 people who face charges that include murder, attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder, dissuasion of witnesses and bribery, possession of firearms and attempted robbery. The DA's office announced the indictments on March 24. They include a string of alleged crimes stretching from San Francisco to East Palo Alto between September 2012 and December 2013. All 16 are alleged members or associates of the Da Vill, Sac Street and Taliban gangs, who were at war with each other during this time, according to the DA's office.
The murder charges stem from four homicides: the shootings of Christopher Baker, 21, in East Palo Alto on Oct. 5, 2012; Stoney Gipson of San Francisco on Oct. 27, 2012; and East Palo Alto residents Jonathan Alcazar, 24, on Jan. 14, 2013, and Lamont Coleman, 21, on Jan. 26, 2013, according to the DA's office.
Paul DeMeester, the attorney representing Bustos-Montes through the county's private defender program, has called for the DA's office to not prosecute the nine as death-penalty cases. He has cited the costs of death-penalty trials as the principal reason, Wagstaffe said.
But the majority of California voters rejected eliminating the death penalty in 2012, he noted.
"What Paul is asking us to do is to override California law," he said.
DeMeester could not be reached for comment.
Wagstaffe said that if found guilty, the defendants could receive the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole due to the fact that the murders were committed as gang killings and some defendants have been charged with multiple murders.
But he cautioned that his office has not yet decided on whether to pursue the death penalty in any of the cases.
"Any time you are dealing with multiple murders, the death penalty is a topic of discussion," he said. "We want to give the defense a chance to present mitigating evidence. The nine people are technically eligible for it, but their involvement is dramatically different."
He added that his office will consider factors such as the role each defendant played in the murders and whether they have a longer track record of crime.
The costs of prosecuting death-penalty cases would not be a hindrance, he said.
"I'm cognizant of taxpayer resources. But you could make the argument, why even charge anyone with murder because of the costs of prosecuting the case? You could prosecute it on a (lesser charge) and save a lot of money," he said.
Wagstaffe said the DA's office wants families in East Palo Alto to feel safe in their homes and when they walk down the street. Since the arrests, he has heard reports from police that the streets have been quiet.
"We've had two homicides in the last three days, and I'm very pleased to say that neither is in East Palo Alto," he said. "We hope we can make a difference."
Most of the defendants appeared in court on Friday, April 11. Judge John Grandsaert postponed their hearings to await the availability of the grand jury transcript. The case was reset to June 16 for entry of pleas and to set jury trial and pretrial conference dates.