In closing arguments of a murder trial Wednesday, both sides agreed that in the early hours of Easter Sunday 2009, members of a Fresno street gang tried to settle an internal dispute with a fistfight in a quiet Clovis neighborhood.
But once the fistfight ended, shots rang out and 33-year-old Richard Cervantes was dead on the street.
Prosecutor Brian Hutchins contends Alejandro Paz, then 22, murdered the unarmed Cervantes in cold blood because Paz lost a fistfight with Cervantes.
But Fresno defense attorney Cadee Esparza told the jury that Paz feared for his life when he shot Cervantes. She said Paz shot Cervantes in self-defense after he heard someone say, “Stick ’em, dog,” and thought Cervantes was going for a knife in his waistband.
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Jurors will begin deliberations Thursday in Fresno County Superior Court after Judge James Petrucelli instructs them on the laws regarding murder, manslaughter and self-defense.
Paz, now 29, is charged with murder in the slaying of Cervantes, who was shot once in the chest. He also is charged with the attempted murder of Cervantes’ nephew, Esteban Ohano, who drove Cervantes to the fistfight at Dewitt and Scott avenues, in a neighborhood southwest of Old Town Clovis.
In addition, Paz is charged with three counts of assault with a firearm for shooting at Ohano’s car that contained young women who went to witness the fistfight and ended up seeing Cervantes get shot. One of them, a 16-year-old girl, suffered a serious head wound while sitting in the back seat of Ohano’s car.
A co-defendant in the case, Vincent Ramirez, who drove Paz to the fight, was initially charged with murder, but was given a plea deal to testify against Paz. Ramirez, 26, has pleaded guilty to manslaughter in exchange for 12 years in prison.
If Paz is convicted of murder, he faces at least 40 years to life in prison.
The killing evolved from an internal dispute among Bulldog gang members whose turf is called “Taco Flats,” which is around Melody Park near Shields and Fowler avenues in east Fresno.
In closing arguments, Hutchins said Cervantes, Ohano, Paz and Ramirez were Bulldog gang members. To prove his point, he showed the jury photographs of Paz’s tattoos, which include “Ruthless Thug Life” across his chest and “ESF,” which stands for “East Side Fresno,” on his shoulder.
Esparza told the jury that Paz got the tattoos when he was 12 years old. She said he had been living trouble free in Washington state for five years before returning home in December 2008; he planned to return to Washington once his two young sons finished the school year. His lone criminal conviction is for misdemeanor trespassing.
On the other hand, Esparza said, Cervantes was an OG, which stands for “Original Gangster,” or an elder in the gang. He had served time in prison, was known to carry a knife, and was high on methamphetamines when he was shot, she told the jury.
The crux of the dispute is unclear. Hutchins told the jury that the gang had put a “green light” on Ohano, which is authorization to discipline a member, because he had been seen being friendly with rival gang members. Hutchins said it was up to Ramirez to discipline Ohano.
But Esparza said Ohano was in trouble with the gang because he was having relationships with several women who were girlfriends of fellow gang members. Though they were friends, Ramirez had a personal dispute with Ohano because he had thrown a rock at a car that belonged to Ramirez’s girlfriend, Esparza said.
On the night of the shooting, a drunken Ramirez went to Paz’s apartment to pick him up. Before they left, Paz grabbed a .40-caliber Glock pistol out of a cereal box and took it with him, Hutchins told the jury. Paz put the gun in the trunk of Ramirez’s car.
Ramirez testified that he drove toward his girlfriend’s home in Clovis to check on her. That’s when he saw Ohano and Cervantes in a car that was stopped near Scott and Dewitt avenues. Ramirez testified that he parked in front of the car to block them from leaving.
Both sides agree that Paz and Cervantes fought before Cervantes was shot. Hutchins said Paz told Ramirez to pop the trunk open so he could get the gun and shoot Cervantes. “It was a cold, calculated move by this defendant after he lost the fight,” Hutchins told the jury.
After Paz shot Cervantes, he sprayed about a dozen bullets toward the car containing Ohano and the young women, Hutchins said.
In defending Paz, Esparza mocked the prosecution case, saying Hutchins repeatedly talked about gangs to give the case “sex appeal.”
She said Ramirez was the one who brought the gun to the fistfight. The gun was stolen in a burglary in Fresno while Paz was in Washington state, she told the jury. “What did they do, Fed Ex the gun to him and then he brought it back to Fresno?” she said.
More likely, Ohano had given the gun to Ramirez, his friend, before police found the stolen loot from the burglary in Ohano’s possession.
Esparza said Ramirez and the other witnesses weren’t being truthful in order to protect Ohano. “Because the gun he gave to Ramirez ended up killing his uncle,” she said.