SANTA ANA – An Orange County jury Wednesday found a gang member guilty in the fatal shooting of an innocent man whom he believed fought in an argument over the best state in Mexico.
The panel of seven women and five men deliberated two days before convicting Ricardo Guerra Rocha, 19, of murder and one count of street terrorism, with sentencing enhancements, including use of a gun. He now faces a possible prison term of 40 years to life at his Sept. 7 sentencing by Superior Court Judge Steven Bromberg.
Even though Rocha, who was17 at time of the killing Feb. 13, 2011, was not the triggerman, “Mr. Rocha is not simply along for the ride,” Deputy District Attorney Mark Geller told jurors in his closing argument.
The prosecutor said the defendant’s statements were “terminal” to his case.
Rocha told police he was “pissed” after the best state dispute at a Santa Ana restaurant, Geller said, adding the defendant’s statement “We shot him right here, from the side of the restaurant,” spoke to his culpability.
Defense attorney Joe Heneghan said his client faced an “uphill burden” but contended the killing was not gang-related and not a conspiracy between Rocha and two co-defendants, including shooting suspect Ivan Sanchez, 23, who went by the nickname “Stoner.”
Sanchez and Rocha’s sister, Maria Isabel Rocha, 30, another co-defendant in the case, also face murder charges in the case. Both are awaiting trial.
Geller said Rocha, known as “Husky” in his gang, was liable under any one of three theories: aiding and abetting, conspiracy, and natural and probable consequences.
After the argument with an unknown group of people at Mariscos La Ola restaurant in Santa Ana over which state in Mexico was better, Rocha and the co-defendants left but returned to the scene with a gun, prosecutors said.
By the time they got back, Geller said, the challengers were gone and 35-year-old Esteban Navarrete was getting into his car with his wife and a friend. At that point, as Sanchez walked forward with the gun, Navarrete said, “We’re not the ones!” the prosecutor said.
Sanchez shot at least once through the windshield and hit Navarrete once in the head, killing him, before fleeing the scene, Geller said. The prosecutor contended Rocha was standing right next to Sanchez when he pulled the trigger and later advised him to get rid of his clothes.
The fact that Rocha is young is sad, “but how’s that any less sad than the life Mrs. Navarrete now has to live,” Geller told jurors.
The jury was split on a first-degree murder charge, but after Geller dismissed the count and Bromberg sent jurors back to deliberate on a second-degree murder charge, the panel returned a verdict within minutes.
By VIK JOLLY and PETER LARSON / THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
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