Throughout the People’s case against Ricardo Juarez-who was 14 years old when an adult murder charge was brought against him in the March 14, 2007, stabbing death of 15-year-old Luis Angel Linares-prosecutor Hilary Dozer has been calling various teenagers currently and formerly in Santa Barbara gangs. But the 18-year-old witness who took the stand Tuesday afternoon was different.
This witness, unlike most of the other witnesses who sat in the hallway outside Judge Brian Hill’s courtroom waiting to be called, was brought in through the basement and whisked into the courthouse. Escorted by several uniformed and plainclothes Santa Barbara police officers, the witness limped down the stairs toward Hill’s courtroom and sat in a guarded room adjacent to the courtroom until it was time to testify.
This witness-with a bloodshot right eye and stitches running from the corner of his eye, down the side of his nose, and curling under his lip-spoke almost inaudibly. He needed a handheld microphone to be heard, and took long, deliberate breaths while he spoke.
Just days before he was scheduled to testify, the witness-who told the jury he was an Eastside gang member and who portrayed a certain pride in that proclamation-was stabbed several times outside a hotel on upper State Street, allegedly by another gang member. He was left with a collapsed lung and injuries to his legs, shoulder, and face for which he underwent surgery at Cottage Hospital.
But the jury-admonished by Hill not to look at media reports regarding the case-won’t know how or why the young man was injured, because the court ruled outside their presence that the incident wouldn’t be included in evidence or testimony before the jury. The decision was also made outside the public’s presence, leaving it to speculation what transpired after the courtroom was cleared of spectators. Dozer’s only comment about the decision: “I always have to abide by the court ruling on what might be potentially prejudicial to the jury.”
But the revelation that the attack was related to the case-three people, including at least one Eastsider, have been arrested for the attack, with charges including attempted murder and witness intimidation-has only brightened the spotlight on the potential for intimidation. Dozer admitted in court that tension was high on the streets as a result of the trial, and tensions have been high inside the court as well.
Last Wednesday, August 13, Dozer claimed that someone in the audience made an intimidating gesture toward another witness, a 15-year-old former Eastside gang member who later admitted that he was aware of threats made for testifying on the stand. As the teen testified that he saw Juarez discard a knife in a trash can near the murder scene at Carrillo and State streets, the alleged intimidator stood up shaking his head at the witness and walked out. Dozer told the court the person’s actions were “more than just a subtle coincidence.” Defense attorney Karen Atkins assured the court that neither Juarez nor his counsel knew about or had anything to do with the incident. (Despite the threat and attack, the two witnesses, when asked if they feared retaliation, both replied no.)
The 18-year-old, who was arrested for participating in the March 2007 brawl, said he knew the victim from a class at El Puente Community School. He testified that Linares had “stepped up to him” at school and called him a “cheeser.” He described the fight in testimony Monday, August 18, saying that while he was engaging a Westsider, he saw a fight out of the corner of his eye, but couldn’t remember seeing anyone pulling a knife out during the fight. Dozer’s questioning indicated the witness had previously told Detective Gary Siegel that he saw someone get stabbed and saw “Little Thief”-a nickname for Juarez-pull out a knife. He also apparently had demonstrated for Siegel how Juarez swung the knife. But on cross-examination, the 18-year-old agreed with defense co-counsel Jennifer Archer that he felt like Siegel had put words in his mouth.
Despite Dozer offering immunity to many of the other young gang members who have testified, they are all having difficulty remembering specifics of the street fight. In many cases, their testimony is contradicting what they told officers immediately after the incident, setting themselves up to have their testimony impeached for contradictory statements but also possibly keeping themselves from being labeled as squealers. Most of the youths refuse to even say that they were involved or planning to be involved in the fight, and some are saying that even though they were involved they never crossed the street or were not near the Saks parking lot where Linares was stabbed and killed.
The trial, which has gone nine days as of Thursday, August 21, is expected to continue until late October.