By JOSE ARBALLO JR.
The first three defendants in the largest murder case in Riverside County
history have been acquitted of all charges, leaving questions over future
prosecutions in the case.
The prosecutor in the case said Friday that she will not change plans to
prosecute the others, saying she has an obligation to combat gang crime.
The defense attorneys and one of the defendants contend that the authorities
went too far.
Two juries found Curlee Mitchell, 26, of Cathedral City, and Banning residents
Julian McKee, 33, and Robert McMorris, 19, not guilty of two counts of
murder and allegations they were gang members. The charges stem with a
2006 fatal double-shooting outside a Banning apartment complex.
The verdicts for Mitchell and McMorris were read Friday, prompting family
members and supporters of both men to raise their hands, hug and quietly
sob in the crowded courtroom.
Moments later, Judge Patrick Magers announced that a second jury had found
McKee not guilty on all charges. Those verdicts were reached Wednesday,
but Magers then ruled that they be sealed and placed a gag order on all
parties involved to prevent the outcome from influencing the other jury.
McKee had been charged with the special allegation of multiple murders
-- meaning that if he had been convicted, he could have been sentenced
to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The trial was the first of several expected this year in the case that
stems from a February 2006 shootout that left Vincent McCarthy, 33, of
Beaumont, and Demetrius Hunt, 18, of La Quinta, dead. In all, prosecutors
plan to try 13 people on murder charges in the killings. In terms of the
number of defendants, it is Riverside County's largest-ever murder case.
Defense attorneys and Mitchell said the verdicts send a clear message to
the Riverside County district attorney's office, but prosecutor Denna
Bennett said Friday that she plans to press the case without change.
"Do I agree with their decision? No," Bennett said. "But
I am a firm believer in our system. I am going to continue as a prosecutor
to eliminate gangs."
She quickly left the courtroom after the verdict was read.
Virginia Blumenthal, who represented McMorris, said bringing murder charges
against those who were simply in the area of the shooting -- including
those who did not fire a gun -- did not make sense.
"You had two juries that spoke loud and clear," Blumenthal said.
Dusty Hall, 31, a Moreno Valley resident, was a member of the jury that
heard McKee's case, and she attended Friday's verdict announcement.
Hall said jurors had doubts whether McKee was even present during the
shooting, but they said they would not have convicted him of murder because
there was no connection between his mere presence there and the killings.
"Just being there is not enough," she said.
Verdict Is Read
Mitchell, dressed in a dark suit, embraced his attorney for several minutes
after the verdict was read, then turned and smiled at his supporters.
He stood in the courtroom for several minutes, shaking hands and offering
hugs with anyone within reach.
"I prayed, my family prayed," said Mitchell, standing near the
defense table as others slowly made their way out of the courtroom. The
wide grin never left his face. "Our prayers were answered."
Mitchell said the time away from his family -- he has been in custody for
more than two years -- has been difficult, and he plans spend as much
time with them as possible. He criticized police and prosecutors who he
believes went too far.
"They knew we should not be here," he said. "They knew who
the shooters were. They have known that from the beginning. They said
things that just weren't true."
Mitchell made a prediction of the upcoming trials: "There will be
a lot more not guilties before this is over," he said.
Wearing a yellow dress shirt, McMorris sat with his head down sobbing after
the verdicts were announced. Several relatives and supporters sobbed as
McMorris hugged his defense team, and then one by one, each hugged McMorris
as he wiped away his tears. Several jurors, some with tears streaming
down their faces, walked up and hugged him. Moments before, Judge Magers
had told the two defendants that the jurors were "giving you back
Legal Theory Prosecutors are using the long-standing legal theory of aiding
and abetting -- a concept that holds all participants in a crime responsible
for the "natural and probable consequences" of their actions
-- to seek murder convictions against those who they believe are members
of the Crips and Bloods gangs who were present when the men were shot
to death during an altercation.
According to court records, the two men were killed during the "jump
out" of McMorris from the Young Ass Hustlers gang. Authorities said
the group of friends developed into a criminal street gang under the influence
of the Bloods, a well-known gang that dates back to the 1970s.
James Taylor, McKee's attorney, said the acquittals are a signal to
Bennett that she should heed.
"I believe they are going to have problems down the line," said
Taylor, who sobbed with his client Wednesday when the verdicts were read.
"I believe, at this point, they should go after the heavies (those
who fired weapons), settle the cases and let people move on with their
Witnesses and evidence presented during the two-month-long trial offered
a glimpse at what prosecutors say is the gang culture, in which people
can be killed for "disrespecting" a fellow gang member or the
gang itself. Bennett said Friday that she plans to use the same legal
theory in the upcoming cases, but some modifications may be necessary
depending which defendant is prosecuted next.
"The ultimate thing is that two people are dead," she said. "Somebody
is liable for their deaths. As we stand here today, I firmly believe we
are doing the right thing by prosecuting gangs."
Said Blumenthal: "This does not stop the gang activity when they have
nothing to do with it. They are trying to make a statement by prosecuting