After five weeks of testimony and a day of listening to closing arguments, the fate of two Turlock men accused of gunning down a 26-year-old man with aspirations of rap stardom, is inching closer to being in the hands of 12 jurors.
Raymond “Raymo” Gutierrez, 31, and Alvaro “Tito” Saldana, 26, are facing first-degree murder charges with gang enhancements in the death of 26-year-old Roger Villanueva on May 25, 2008.
Villanueva was shot to death in the backyard of an Angelus Street home during a memorial barbecue to Moses Rodriguez, who was murdered in Turlock in 2006.
Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Thomas Zeff ordered the jurors to return Monday for the remainder of the closing arguments from defense attorneys Frank Carson and Gary Smith and a final rebuttal from Deputy District Attorney Thomas Brennan.
Friday’s proceedings primarily consisted of Brennan’s initial closing statement and a large portion of Carson’s final argument for his client, Gutierrez.
During Brennan’s address to the jury he extolled them to not let the fact that both the victim and the suspects are Norteno gang members cloud their judgment.
“This isn’t some trophy for the community of another dead gang member,” Brennan said. “This was a human being.”
Brennan told the jurors that “it’s time for you all to send a message to the gangs” that these killings would not be tolerated in Stanislaus County. This remark earned him a chastising from the judge and almost sparked a mistrial.
The remark was made just prior to the lunch break and when the proceedings resumed, Carson made a motion that was seconded by Smith that a mistrial be declared based on Brennan’s remark of sending a message.
“Verdicts should be based on evidence not a moral stamp of approval,” Smith told the judge.
The motion was made out of the presence of the jury.
Zeff ruled against the motion, stating the objection was raised too late after the remark was made. He did agree to admonish the jury that their job was to weigh the evidence and not to send a message.
In a somewhat rarely used move for the defense, both defendants took the stand during the final days of testimony to present their sides of the events.
Both men testified that the gun was not brought to the barbecue by them and that they believe it belonged to Villanueva. They also both stated that they went into the backyard of the Angelus residence with Villanueva, and that a fight ensued between Gutierrez and Villanueva.
During his turn on the stand, Gutierrez said that during the fight a gun fell to the ground and that both he and Villanueva went for it. Gutierrez said he got the gun and was in the process of standing upright with the gun in his hand, when he was kicked in the face. He testified that the kick blurred his vision and may have caused the gun to fire.
“I dropped the gun, then I ran,” Gutierrez said.
In previous testimony gun experts testified the bullets that were recovered from the crime scene came from a semi-automatic handgun that had been modified to shoot like a machine gun. Saldana’s testimony backed up Gutierrez’s version.
Villanueva was shot multiple times in his torso, back and head.
It was revealed during their testimony for the first time, that the two men are half-brothers.
Both men were questioned extensively by the prosecution about wilas they had written while in custody at the Stanislaus County Jail. The wilas are written in tiny script and serve as both a pseudo newsletter for the gang and as new arrival questionnaires.
The wilas that belonged to Gutierrez and Saldana were found in another inmate’s possession during a search of his cell.
While they do not contain an outright confession, the prosecution claims the two men used the wilas to explain to the Norteno gang why killing Villanueva was justifiable. Saldana’s wila refers to Villanueva as a “degenerate” who was more concerned about making money than his fellow gang members. He also described past run-ins with Villanueva including an incident where Villanueva was suspected of shooting at their residence.
Both men’s wilas state “It would be an honor to assist La Casa in a removal.” La Casa refers to the gang in prison. Gutierrez and Saldana said a removal refers to an assault of someone, but the prosecution claims a removal can mean anything from an assault to murder.
The trial is scheduled to resume at 10 a.m. Monday in Dept. 5.
To contact Sabra Stafford, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 634-9141 ext. 2002.