Gang member convicted of first-degree murder of L.A. High football starLOS ANGELES - A 23-year-old gang member was convicted today of first-degree murder for gunning down a standout Los Angeles High School football player whom he mistakenly thought was a rival gang member.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Pedro Espinoza, who killed 17-year-old Jamiel Shaw Jr. on March 2, 2008. A penalty phase of trial will begin Tuesday, with jurors being asked to recommend whether Espinoza should be sentenced to death or life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Jurors deliberated for about four hours before reaching their verdict. They found true the special-circumstance allegation that Shaw's killing was carried out to further the activities of a criminal street gang, along with an allegation that Espinoza personally and intentionally discharged a handgun.
Shaw was shot twice -- once in the abdomen and a fatal bullet to the head -- only yards from his home in Arlington Heights. His father found him lying on the pavement.
"This restores my faith in the justice system," Jamiel Shaw Sr. said after the verdict as tears welled in his eyes.
Prosecutors said Shaw was gunned down while walking home carrying a Spider-Man backpack, the red color of which made Espinoza perceive Shaw as a member of a rival Bloods gang.
"We are here today because on March 2nd, 2008, he chose to take the life of Jamiel Shaw II," Deputy District Attorney Allyson Ostrowski told jurors during her closing argument, noting that the last thing the teenager heard before being shot was the classic gang challenge, "Where are you from?"
"It was a cold-blooded murder. It was an execution," the prosecutor said.
Espinoza, who had no reaction as the verdict was being read, still sports a tattoo by his left ear consisting of the initials "B.K.," which prosecutors said stands for "Blood Killer."
At the time of the shooting, Espinoza was living in the United States illegally and had just been released from jail for allegedly brandishing a firearm, without immigration authorities placing a hold on him.
Shaw's parents have campaigned for a law that would enable police to arrest undocumented-immigrant gang members and hand them over to federal authorities.
"We want (Espinoza) and his homeboys to see that this is what happens when you kill American citizens," Jamiel Shaw Sr. said.
One of Espinoza's attorneys, Csaba Palfi, told the jury that the prosecution's case was weak because of inconsistencies and said of his client, "Just because he's a gang member doesn't mean he did it."
"There's no charge for being a gang member. There's no charge for standing up for your gang," Palfi said, urging jurors to give his client "a fair trial."
But in his rebuttal argument, Deputy District Attorney Bobby Grace said there was a "wall of evidence that points to this particular defendant" shooting Shaw as the teen walked home while talking to his girlfriend on a cellular telephone.
Shaw's parents vividly recalled learning of his death.
"To see him lying there (on the pavement) was just unacceptable," the boy's father said.
Anita Shaw, a sergeant in the U.S. Army, got the news about her son's death while she was serving in Iraq.
"I felt like my world just came to an end," she said. "That was a painful day, a very, very painful day."
The Shaws also unsuccessfully sued the county after their son's slaying, alleging that Espinoza was a "dangerous felon and an immigration violator" who should have been turned over to immigration authorities rather than being freed from jail two days before the shooting.