Gang Members Framed Client, Lawyer Argues

Gang Members Framed Client, Lawyer Argues
Defense in the Oxnard murder case says prosecutors promised favors for testimony. A senior deputy D.A. defends the deals.
By Tracy Wilson
Times Staff Writer

December 6, 2003

A defense lawyer urged a Ventura County jury Friday to acquit his client of murder charges, arguing that the defendant had been framed by his gang brethren and prosecutors who promised favors in exchange for their testimony.

Deputy Public Defender Todd Howeth told jurors it would be a miscarriage of justice to convict gang member Rudy Mendoza based on the “lies and half-truths” offered by state witnesses. But the prosecutor in the case defended deals cut with two gang members who implicated Mendoza and called Howeth’s tactics a desperate attempt to blame the killing on someone else.

“What the defense has provided you with is a conspiracy theory,” Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Simon said in his closing argument. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

Mendoza, 27, is charged with murder as well as weapon and gang enhancements for allegedly shooting fellow gang member Anthony Rodriguez, 30, as Rodriguez sat in his car outside a tire store in north Oxnard two years ago.

The apparent motive was Mendoza’s belief that Rodriguez had disrespected his family, the prosecutor said.

According to court testimony, several members of the same El Rio gang were standing nearby when the shooting occurred. Howeth told jurors that it was one of those gang members, not Mendoza, who shot Rodriguez.

But Simon argued that evidence, including testimony from gang members and a questionable defense alibi, pointed to Mendoza as the killer.

The trial began three weeks ago in Superior Court and has focused heavily on deals negotiated with gang members for their testimony. Two men with criminal records cooperated with the prosecution in Mendoza’s case in exchange for lighter sentences in other cases.

One testified that he saw Mendoza shoot the victim. The other wrote a note to law enforcement three days after the shooting in which he also identified Mendoza as the gunman.

Later, Mendoza wrote a note to one of those men in which he urged the witness to tell another gang member to “stick to the same story he gave the cops.” Simon called the note powerful evidence of Mendoza’s guilt.

Howeth, however, characterized the witnesses as liars whose testimony should not be relied upon. He further suggested that the men framed his client to shield another gang member who likely pulled the trigger.

Howeth also accused Simon of complicity for failing to question one witness who refused to answer defense questions on cross-examination about other witnesses to the killing, arguing that the prosecutor “blocked the attempt to get at the truth.”

In a rebuttal argument, Simon urged jurors not to be swayed by Howeth’s passionate rhetoric.

He told jurors the prosecution never attempted to hide the fact that it cut deals with gang members who, he said, risked their lives by testifying in the face of a street culture where witnesses are beaten or stabbed for talking to law enforcement.

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