LOS ANGELES, Calif.--A gang member who gunned down a Los Angeles High School football standout because he was carrying a red Spider-Man backpack was sentenced to death today.
Jurors recommended in May that Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ronald H. Rose impose the death sentence on Pedro Espinoza, 23, who was convicted of first-degree murder for the March 2, 2008, shooting death of Jamiel Shaw Jr., 17, near his home in the Arlington Heights area of Los Angeles.
Jurors also found true the special circumstance allegation that the murder was carried out to further the activities of a criminal street gang.
Shaw was shot once in the head and once in the abdomen. The teenager, who had a collection of Spider-Man items in his bedroom, had been walking home carrying a Spider-Man backpack that made Espinoza mistakenly perceive him as a gang rival, according to prosecutors.
Before pronouncing sentence, Rose rejected a defense motion for a new trial in the case.
Deputy District Attorney Allyson Ostrowski told jurors during the trial that Espinoza, a Latino, "chose to execute a 17-year-old for the color of his skin and the color of his backpack," calling the slaying of Shaw, who was black, a "cold-blooded, calculated execution."
Jurors also heard a Probation Department employee's account that Espinoza--while a teenager in a juvenile camp --said he was "down for death row." Ostrowski, who prosecuted the case with colleague Bobby Grace, said the remark "definitely showed that the defendant had aspired to get to where he is today."
One of Espinoza's attorneys, M. David Houchin, said he was "not trying in any way to excuse Pedro Espinoza" but asked jurors to recommend a life prison sentence for his client.
"My plea for Mr. Espinoza's life is not a plea for leniency," Houchin said, arguing that the death penalty "should be meted out to the worst in our society."
Another of Espinoza's attorneys, Csaba Palfi, said in May he was disappointed with the jury's decision.
"Quite honestly, I was hoping for the best, which would have been LWOP--life without (parole). But it was a very tough case for the defense," Palfi said, noting his client told him before the verdict was read to "smile for the camera."
"I understand how the Shaw family feels," he added. But I don't think this is really going to make a difference. You can kill Mr. Espinoza in 20 years or whenever it is, but I don't think it's really going to help the family ever have closure on any of this ..."
The victim's father, Jamiel Shaw Sr., told reporters shortly after the verdict that he was "very happy justice was served."
"... Under the circumstances, this is the best that we could do," he said. "We couldn't do no more than the conviction with the death penalty, and we're going to hold our heads up high."
He had told jurors that his son's athletic prowess had attracted interest from numerous universities, including Stanford and Rutgers, and that the four years since the slaying had been "like a nightmare."
Anita Shaw was serving as an Army sergeant in Iraq when she was told her eldest son had been gunned down in Los Angeles. She told jurors she could not stop crying while flying back for his funeral.