The attorney for a 23-year-old Santa Rosa gang member accused of gunning down a rival on a South Park street argued Tuesday that prosecutors ignored the only eyewitness and are going after the wrong man.
Attorney Peter Bumerts told jurors the witness to the 2009 slaying of 18-year-old Luis Suarez described the assailant's car as a red, 1970s Monte Carlo. The man charged with his killing, Fernando Mendoza, drove a</CL> red Lexus from the 1990s, he said.
Bumerts argued the chief suspect should be Mendoza's cousin, Marco Meza, 20, also of Santa Rosa, who initially took credit for the murder in text messages he sent to the victim's girlfriend.
Meza has since said he didn't do it and was only trying to impress the girl whom he didn't know was dating Suarez. He testified against Mendoza under a grant of immunity.
"Why do we want to let him off the hook?" said Bumerts "It is beyond belief that you would be asked to bring a verdict of guilt in this case."
But prosecutor Victoria Shanahan listed a number of reasons why she believed Mendoza, not Meza, killed Suarez near Grand Avenue on April 6, 2009.
She said the witness description of the car included a paint job and wheels that matched Mendoza's Lexus. Two days after the slaying, Mendoza tried to sell it to a dealer, she said.
Shanahan said cell phone records put Meza on the road from Lake County at the time of the shooting. Meza, his sister and her boyfriend testified Mendoza came to their Yolanda Avenue apartment the day after the killing and told them he did it.
Mendoza carried a newspaper with a story about the slaying. The paper was later found in his car, Shanahan said.
In addition, Shanahan said Mendoza tattooed the initials for "norte? killer" on his back after Suarez's death. In a letter seized from his jail cell, he referred to himself as an "assassin" and in a recorded jail phone call he conceded missteps in trying to get rid of the car, she said.
The evidence squares with testimony that Mendoza attacked Suarez after the rival norte? "mad-dogged" him when they encountered each other earlier in the day. Around 9:30 p.m., Shanahan said Mendoza pulled up alongside Suarez, took out his gun and began firing at the unarmed man.
"This was a cold-blooded, ruthless killing of someone who didn't deserve it, whether he was a norte? or not," Shanahan said.
Bumerts said jurors should not consider Mendoza's gang status in reaching a verdict. The former Sonoma County prosecutor, who tried mass-murderer Ramon Salcido, became emotional in his final plea.
"I hate the thought that my grandchildren are exposed to gangs," Bumerts said. "But that doesn't mean you can find him guilty of murder."
The comments came at the end of the monthlong trial. Jurors were expected to soon begin deliberating whether Mendoza is guilty of murder with multiple enhancements and a second charge of gang participation.