On Wednesday morning at the Santa Barbara Superior Courthouse, a jury found 15-year-old Ricardo Juarez guilty of voluntary manslaughter for his role in the March 14, 2007 stabbing death of 15-year-old Luis Angel Linares, who was killed during a midday gang brawl in the heart of downtown. The 12-person jury also convicted Juarez of committing the offense for the benefit of a criminal street gang and assault with a deadly weapon in the attack, which occurred in the Saks Fifth Avenue parking lot, near the busy intersection of State and Carrillo streets.
But they did not find him guilty of the greater charge of first-degree murder, which could have put him behind bars for 26 years to life. Instead, Juarez faces up to 22 years in state prison for the convictions. The manslaughter charge carries sentences of three, six, or 11 years; the gang enhancement adds 10 years; and Juarez will get one year for the use of the knife.
The defendant reportedly showed no emotion as the jury foreman – the only male on the 12-person jury – announced the verdict. Defense attorneys Karen Atkins and Jennifer Archer, however, looked somber after Judge Brian Hill adjourned the court session, and declined to comment to media.
By contrast, prosecutor Hilary Dozer looked as if he had just been declared victorious, although the jurors didn’t reach the verdict he was originally looking for: murder in the first degree. Regardless, Dozer said he was pleased the jury found the killing was intentional. “They labored long and hard,” he said. “Gang cases are difficult.”
In contrast to Dozer’s reaction, however, Santa Barbara Police Det. Mike Brown – who sat next to Dozer at the attorney’s table in court since the trial began in early August – expressed disappointment with the jurors’ decision to convict Juarez of only voluntary manslaughter, a lesser charge than murder. “It’s not what I would have liked to have seen,” Brown said after the judge adjourned the court session. “I think it was murder.”
Outside the courtroom, jurors, who began deliberating October 8 and arrived at a consensus around 10 a.m. on October 15, spoke with Dozer about their decision. When asked by the prosecutor what the most important piece of evidence was in helping them reach their decision, jurors cited the “Whisper Tape” – a videotaped conversation between the defendant and another suspect while they were alone in a police station interview room just hours after the stabbing. At one point in the tape, Juarez can be heard saying, “I was sticking him and that fool was fucking bleeding from his mouth : I killed someone. They’ll know.” The jurors called the tape “very helpful,” and one added they might not have reached the verdict without it. Others indicated that even without the confession, the evidence and testimony of witnesses was compelling.
Later, Dozer asked the jurors what impact the juvenile court confessional testimony of Ricardo “Stomper” Romero – another teenage boy involved in the fight, on whom the defense tried to pin the fatal stabbing – had on the jurors. One replied, “It came up a few times [during deliberations]. But I think we would have come to the same decision without it.”
The Linares family had no comment to the media, but Dozer said that while the family thought the “acts of the defendant were more consistent with murder,” the result was “gratifying on a certain level.”
After speaking with Dozer, jurors spent a few moments talking with the press about their decision, but asked to not be identified by name. “We followed the law and put the evidence to the law, that’s it,” said the jury foreman.
One juror said there had initially been a large difference in opinions among the jury members when they first entered the deliberation room – at least one wanted to convict Juarez only for assault with a deadly weapon, and at least a few more were pushing for a first-degree murder. Eventually, though, the juror said, everyone compromised on voluntary manslaughter, as it was “clear to everyone” that Juarez had deliberately inflicted at least one of the eight stab wounds found on Linares’s body during the autopsy. “But,” the juror added, “I don’t think he woke up in the morning and said, ‘I’m gonna go kill someone.’ I don’t think it was premeditated.”
Next up for Juarez is an October 30 date in court. As is common in criminal cases, a motion for a new trial is expected from the defense. Also anticipated at some point prior to sentencing is a motion for a fitness hearing, when the judge would determine whether Juarez should be handled as an adult. As of right now, however, he is still viewed by the courts as an adult. Sentencing most likely won’t take place for several more months.
The murder of Linares is the first of three prominent, allegedly gang-related killings in Santa Barbara to make its way through the court system. “I hope this verdict sends a clear message that gang violence will not be tolerated,” Dozer said. While seeking justice for the victim and prosecuting a criminal are the most important priorities, the offspring of a conviction in this case are also important, said District Attorney Christie Stanley, who made the decision to charge Juarez as an adult. “Whatever the deterrent effect it has is a positive,” Stanley said. “It will send a message.” (The verdict’s timing was coincidental with the large gang raid conducted in Santa Barbara on the same morning.)
The conviction means the tragic saga is coming to an end, as all others involved in the case have been prosecuted. And while the case is surely tragic for the dozens of people involved, either directly or indirectly, there is some positive that extends from it, Dozer said. He indicated at least one witness he called in the case has “gone a long way” to take steps to wean his life away from the gangbanger scene and involve himself in more positive activities in school. The events of March 14, 2007, and the subsequent investigation opened his eyes to a certain extent. “You can only do it one kid at a time,” Dozer said.