A Fresno gang member will stand trial on a charge of murder in connection with the killing of 9-year-old Janessa Ramirez, who was mortally wounded a year ago by a stray bullet from a gang gunfight, a judge ruled Monday in Fresno County Superior Court.
Judge Arlan Harrell made his decision after an unusually long preliminary hearing that lasted three days and in which Fresno police detectives testified that 23-year-old Brian Cooks instigated the gunfight to settle a score with a rival.
Though Cooks has admitted to firing a gun that police believed killed Janessa, he and his lawyer, Curtis Sok, contend he fired in self-defense toward a drive-by shooter.
In his ruling, Harrell couched his words, saying “for the purposes of this hearing” there was enough evidence to order Cooks to stand trial on a murder charge, as well as felony charges of shooting at an occupied vehicle, the attempted murder of the driver and being a felon in possession of a firearm.
The judge was referring to the lower legal standard of probable cause at a preliminary hearing to hold someone over for trial. At trial, the legal standard to convict someone is much higher.
Cooks, who is in Fresno County Jail in lieu of posting $2.3 million bail, will be arraigned on the charges Jan. 26. Because he also is accused of firing a gun for the benefit of a criminal street gang, Cooks faces life in prison if convicted.
Police say Janessa was killed by a stray bullet fired during a gunfight on Marks Avenue north of Clinton Avenue during the evening of Jan. 18, 2015.
Her slaying sent shock waves throughout the city, prompting police Chief Jerry Dyer to dispatch 40 detectives, who worked the case around the clock until it was solved.
After nearly two weeks of investigation, the 1,600-hour manhunt led to the arrests of Cooks, Isaac Stafford, then 19, and Donte Hawkins, 22, on murder charges.
Stafford and Hawkins were later released from custody and never charged with murder in connection with Janessa’s killing. Hawkins, however, is in Fresno County Jail awaiting trial in a different attempted murder case.
Prosecutor William Terrence said Cooks was riding a skateboard on Marks Avenue when he saw Stafford and Hawkins in Stafford’s Dodge Challenger. Terrence contends Cooks and Stafford were intent on settling an old feud with guns.
Terrence has charged Cooks with murder because he fired a Glock 19 pistol in the gunfight that ended up killing Janessa, who was about 270 yards away outside a laundromat with her mother and two family friends.
To bolster his case, Terrence called Fresno police detective Melanie Mayo to the witness stand Monday.
Mayo testified that Cooks is a validated member of the Modoc Boyz, one of 30 black criminal street gangs in Fresno that specialize in drug dealing, assaults, murders, robberies and human trafficking. She said Stafford and Hawkins were either members or associates of the Flyboyz, a rival of the Modoc Boyz.
Mayo testified that Stafford was labeled a snitch by rival gang members for helping police in 2012 solve a shooting that resulted in gang member Deandre Robinson getting a long prison sentence. Robinson was in a gang that was an ally to the Modoc Boyz, she said.
Shooting a rival, especially a snitch, would elevate a gang member’s status and increase fear and intimidation in the community that gangs desire, Mayo said. On the other hand, seeing a rival and doing nothing would weaken a gang’s status, causing its members to lose respect on the street, the detective said.
“He would be perceived as ineffective, not down for the cause,” Mayo testified. “His reputation would suffer in a negative way.”
Sok, however, said there was no evidence that Cooks disliked Stafford. In fact, Cooks played basketball with Stafford in the past and praised him for going to college, Sok said.
In his argument, Sok said, Cooks had no choice but to pull the trigger.
“He heard four shots. Thank God, there was a red Monte Carlo there that he could hide behind,” Sok told the judge.
Sok said Hawkins fired first because a witness heard four shots in rapid succession, then one shot. He said the evidence supports his theory because the Monte Carlo had two bullet holes and two bullet strikes.
Under fire, Cooks “was so scared he didn’t get up,” Sok said. Instead, Cooks lifted his gun over his head and fired one round at the drive-by shooter, the defense lawyer told the judge.
Because Cooks fired in self-defense, Sok, in essence, said his client’s intent transfers to the killing of Janessa. The judge rejected the argument.