Four years after a Los Angeles High School football star was gunned down in front of his home, spurring a push for a new law to crack down on undocumented immigrants, the trial is set to begin for the man accused of his murder.
Pedro Espinoza, a 19-year-old undocumented immigrant and a known gang member, faces a charge of murder with special circumstances in the slaying of Jamiel Andre Shaw, 17, who was fatally shot in the head and stomach while talking on the phone with his girlfriend just a couple of doors down from his home in the 2100 block of 5th Avenue in the Arlington Heights neighborhood.
On Tuesday 160 prospective jurors filled out questionnaires that included questions about the death penalty.
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Judge Ronald Rose directed the seated jurors—six men and six women-- to avoid reading or watching any media coverage relating to the death penalty, saying “we need you to be a proper jury.” Rose has denied media requests to record or broadcast portions of the trial, held at the Criminal Justice Center downtown.
Opening arguments are expected to begin on Monday, April 30.
Defendant's Family Avoids Trial "Out of Fear"
In court on Tuesday Espinoza wore a dark suit and glasses, his hair shaved close on the sides and slicked back on top. Espinoza’s attorney, Csaba Plafi, said his client’s family declined to attend the trial, some “out of fear” and others because they were out of town.
Jamiel’s father, Jamiel Shaw Sr., sat in the front row with Althea Shaw, Jamiel’s aunt, and family friends. They were separated from Espinoza by a large glass window and an iron metal cage, remnants of one of the original high security courtrooms in the building.
According to Jamiel Shaw Sr., more family members and friends will be present in the coming weeks including Anita Shaw, Jamiel Shaw’s mother, who was serving in the military in Iraq when Jamiel was killed. The only exception will be Thomas Shaw, 13, Jamiel’s younger brother, who will be in school.
At the time of Jamiel's death, the young football star was being recruited by Rutgers and Stanford University. If he were alive, Shaw said, Jamiel himself would be in school, preparing for college graduation.
“I’m looking to finish with this chapter of my life,” said Jamiel Shaw Sr. Jr., who discovered his son bleeding on the sidewalk moments after he was shot. “I want to move on to something else.”
Shaw has seen Espinoza at numerous preliminary hearings over the years. As Shaw watched the tattooed 23-year old cross the courtroom, he expressed frustration at the slow pace of the judicial process in bringing his son’s alleged killer to justice.
“Sometimes I wish I could attack him right there,” Shaw said.“I’m surprised more people don’t go crazy in court.”
Gang Affiliation Key to Prosecution Strategy, Defense Looks for "Holes"
In an interview, LA County Deputy District Attorney Robert Grace, who is prosecuting the case, expressed confidence in winning a conviction.
“We have a couple witnesses that were at the scene and one who saw the shooting from further away,” Grace said. “We’ll be calling them to the stand to share what they saw.”
Grace said he will emphasize Espinoza’s gang affiliation, and that “the murder was committed for the benefit of a criminal street gang.”
If convicted of murder with the special circumstance of committing the crime as a gang member, Espinoza could life without parole or the death penalty.
Espinoza’s attorney, Csaba Plafi, said he is planning to focus on what he calls “holes” in the prosecution’s argument. Plafi said a neighbor of the Shaws is a crucial witness in the case. His aim, he said, is to offer an alternate perception of the victim.
“Jamiel wasn’t so innocent himself,” Plafi said in an interview. “That night he was wearing a red backpack, a red belt, red shoes. It’s the duck theory. If it walks like a duck and it looks like a duck…it’s a duck!”
Plafl said he has not decided whether Espinoza will take the stand.
“Trials are like chess,” Plafi said. “You want to plan ahead, but you can’t always see that far down. You just don’t know what is going to happen.”
Tuesday’s court proceedings mark the latest chapter for the Shaw family after years of legal wrangling and an ongoing effort to enact a new law spurred by Jamiel’s death.
Family's Wrongful Death Lawsuit Dismissed
In 2009 the Shaw family sued the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s department, alleging that they had been negligent in releasing Espinoza from prison for an un-related abuse charge prior to the alleged murder, despite Espinoza’s lack of legal documentation.
The lawsuit also alleged wrongful death, civil rights violations and a violation of the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act, which ensures immigration enforcement by both federal and local police.
Espinoza was released from the custody of the Los Angeles Police Department just one day before Jamiel was killed. Hours after the shooting, police arrested Espinoza, who emigrated to the US with his mother when he was an infant. He has been awaiting trial in Los Angeles County Jail ever since.
In 2008, after the news of Jamiel’s death and the circumstances around his murder were made public, the outrage went viral. The Shaw family received a letter from President George Bush and a phone call from Bill Cosby, both expressing their condolences.
The civil suit was denied by Superior Court Judge Charles Palmer on the grounds that the law did not support the wrongful death case.
Family Seeks to Revive Interest in Jamiel's Law
The Shaw family has sought to leverage public interest in Jamiel’s death,trying to generate support for a citywide ballot measure that would repeal Special Order 40, which was created in 1979 to allow victims and witnesses to report crimes without fear of exposing themselves to deportation based on their immigration status.
The order has also prevented LAPD officers from determining the immigration status of gang members, violent criminals, and felons.
“Jamiel’s Law” would allow police to collect this information on immigration status and arrest and deport undocumented immigrants for being in the country illegally, even if they haven’t committed a crime.
The family contends that the circumstances surrounding Jamiel’s death make a strong case for adoption of such a law, but efforts to qualify it for the ballot have proved unsuccessful.
In a news release issued in 2011, LAPD Charlie Beck described the key role of Special Order 40 in law enforcement.
“It is imperative that our immigrant communities, regardless of their country of origin, understand that they are not at risk of being deported or subject to any other penalty for reporting crimes that they have either been the victim of or a witness to,” Beck said.
For Jamiel Shaw Sr., the value of the order does not mitigate his grief. “People think life is like Disneyland and everyone loves you. It’s just not like that anymore,” Shaw said. “My mind still hasn’t even processed Jamiel’s death. It’s years later and I still feel like I’m in a dream.”
In recent months the Shaws have revived their push to qualify Jamiel’s Law for the ballot, though daily family attendance at the trial may stall that effort. “We want to let the people decide compared to the politicians,” Althea Shaw said.
On Sunday the Shaws began a daily blog called In Court Today, The Jamiel Shaw Case to detail the daily proceedings of the trial. Shaw Sr. also maintains a weekly Internet radio talk show to discuss aspects of Jamiel’s Law and garner support.
The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) expressed sympathy for the Shaw family and support for Espinoza’s conviction.
“The issue that he was an immigrant is irrelevant because this gentlemen committed a crime and should face justice,” said Jorge Mario, communications director of the CHIRLA. “If that means you spend the rest of your life in jail then you should.”