Just days after a jury exonerated Norberto "Beto" Ramos-Madrid, 19, in the 2013 gang killing of 23-year-old Juan Hernandez, the other two Eastside Blood gang members accused in Hernandez’s murder are on trial in Coconino County Superior Court.
The same witnesses who testified against Ramos-Madrid -- and who the jury found not credible -- are expected to testify again.
The defense attorney for Jeremiah Barlow, 22, is expected to use a strategy similar to the one Ramos-Madrid’s lawyer used to get his client acquitted.
In his opening statements Friday, Barlow’s attorney said Barlow did not kill anyone during the fight between eastside and westside gang members in Flagstaff’s Southside neighborhood early on Sept. 8, 2013.
“The fact is, Jeremiah didn't have a knife, didn't stab anybody and didn't kill Juan Hernandez,”said Joseph Carver, Barlow’s attorney.
Meanwhile, the defense attorney for Michael “Buddy” Vallejos, 23, painted his client as a victim who was attacked by a group of westsiders, including Hernandez. He said it was a retaliation for Vallejos' romantic histories with several women.
“This is not a story about a gang fight,” said Kenneth Sheffield, Vallejos’ attorney. “This is a story about a group of angry young men who wanted to find Buddy, who wanted to hurt Buddy."
He said the westsiders attacked Vallejos' friends and "got more than they bargained for.”
Sheffield said Hernandez was a member of the Vagos 15 street gang, though the prosecution described him as more of a bystander in the fight. He also suggested the westside members may have been armed.
“It’s a tragedy that Juan Hernandez is dead now,” Sheffield said. “He shouldn't be. But he’s dead because of the actions of him and his friends.”
Vallejos and Barlow are both charged with second-degree murder and assisting a criminal street gang. They were arrested separately in early October 2013 after a month on the run.
Both men are accused of stabbing Hernandez repeatedly. He was pronounced dead at Flagstaff Medical Center a short time later.
“Juan Hernandez was only 23-years-old when the defendants, Michael Vallejos and Jeremiah Barlow, cut his life short,” said Coconino County prosecutor Daniel Garcia in his opening statement. “More specifically, they surrounded Juan Hernandez and they stabbed him 23 times all over his body.”
Vallejos is also charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon for allegedly attacking a second westside gang member with a knife.
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In court Friday, Garcia told the jury they would hear testimony about how the defendants were drinking with four other eastsiders at Vallejos’ house in the 100 block of South Elden Street the night of Sept. 7, 2013. According to Flagstaff Police Department, the group was walking to a gas station to get more alcohol when Vallejos confronted a young man in an apartment complex just down the street from his house and stabbed him four times because he was from a rival gang.
Sheffield suggested that stabbing never actually happened.
A group of westsiders, including Hernandez, soon found out Vallejos had been spotted in the apartment complex and drove to Vallejos’ neighborhood, where some of them threw rocks at Vallejos’ house. The six eastsiders responded by exiting the house and fighting with at least six westsiders on the dark street.
At least three people were stabbed, including Hernandez, a second westsider and Barlow.
Garcia described it as an eruption of the longtime rivalry between Flagstaff’s eastside and westside gangs.
“(The defendants) didn't know Juan Hernandez personally,” Garcia said. “The only thing they knew was that he wasn't an Eastside Blood. For them, that was enough to kill him.”
Garcia also repeatedly referred to Ramos-Madrid as one of the men who stabbed Hernandez despite the fact that a jury found Ramos-Madrid not guilty on all charges earlier this week.
After Ramos-Madrid’s trial, the jury foreman said a big factor in the acquittal was that nearly all the eyewitnesses admitted at trial that they had lied to police officers and changed their stories. The same witnesses are expected to testify against Vallejos and Barlow.
Among them is eastside gang member Shane Anagal, 21, who told the jury in the Ramos-Madrid trial he saw Ramos-Madrid and Vallejos stab Hernandez. He also said he saw Barlow making “stabbing motions” at Hernandez.
Anagal was on the lam until July 2014 and was originally charged as an accomplice in Hernandez’s murder. He reached a deal with the prosecution in fall 2014. He agreed to plead guilty to assisting a criminal street gang, which carries a possibility of probation or a 2 to 8.75 year prison sentence, in exchange for testifying.
After the Ramos-Madrid trial, the jury foreman said jurors did not believe Anagal’s testimony. The defense attorneys for Vallejos and Barlow appeared to be counting on getting the same response from their jurors.
“At the end of the day, you’re just going to have to decide, for somebody that goes from looking at decades in prison to probation, does that person have an incentive to lie to you?” Carver said, calling Anagal "not trustworthy.”
The jury will hear from a local gang expert. They will also hear from the medical examiner who found wounds from at least two stabbing implements on Hernandez’s body, as well as other expert witnesses.
The trial is expected to last three weeks.