Ryan O. Suarez, 16, has pleaded not guilty to killing John Cordero-Juarez on June 23, 2013, at Reynolds Park in South Dos Palos. If convicted, the teenager, who has been charged as an adult, faces a maximum sentence of 25 years to life in prison.
A jury of eight women and four men heard closing arguments Tuesday after a weeklong trial before Judge Ronald W. Hansen in Merced Superior Court.
Prosecutors said Suarez was “on the hunt” for gang rivals after the death of Francisco Almaraz, who was gunned down five days earlier on June 18, 2013.
Mathew Martinez, the deputy district attorney prosecuting the case, said Suarez spotted Cordero-Juarez in the park, pulled a weapon from his pants and opened fire. Martinez said Suarez fired at least seven shots, two of which struck the victim in the back as Cordero-Juarez tried to run away.
“He disabled the victim by shooting him in the leg and it broke his femur,” Martinez told the jury. “And the defendant stood over him and finished him off. The victim was on the ground crawling away, probably begging for his life.”
Martinez argued that Suarez initiated the violence, could have walked away at any time and should be convicted of first-degree murder.
Suarez’s attorney, Jeffrey Tenenbaum, told jurors his client should be convicted only of manslaughter, saying it was Cordero-Juarez who initiated the incident by “staring down” Suarez and brandishing a steak knife as a weapon.
“It was a very, very heated moment,” Tenenbaum said. “My client is guilty of a crime, and the crime is manslaughter. It’s not murder.”
Tenenbaum criticized the murder charge, calling it “so far out there it’s hard to believe.”
“There’s simply no evidence of first-degree murder. None. There’s no evidence that my client shot him in cold blood,” Tenenbaum said.
Tenenbaum argued it was more likely that an “irrational, irresponsible” teenager was lashing out in desperate, perhaps unfounded, fear for his own safety than it was to believe he had a larger, premeditated, deadly plan orchestrated to promote the interests of a well-known prison gang.
The defense attorney noted the key witness in the case, a teenage girl who was with the victim in the park that day, changed her story several times, first saying she witnessed the shooting, then saying she only heard shots fired, but did not see the shooting because she was running away.
Martinez countered by noting the witness’ statements about what she claimed to have seen matched up exactly with the physical evidence in the case, particularly the trajectory of the bullets fired into the victim’s body while he was on the ground. Martinez called Suarez “a cold-blooded killer.”
“You don’t get to claim self-defense when you have a gun and they, at best, have a knife and you shoot them in the back as they are running away,” Martinez said. “The victim literally brought a knife to a gunfight, so he runs away. There is no self-defense.”
Jury deliberations began late yesterday and resume today.