Attorneys for four gang members accused in the 1995 shooting death of toddler Stephanie Kuhen insisted Wednesday that their clients were on trial based on weak evidence and the tainted testimony of a witness who may have been the killer.
Wrapping up final arguments in the case, the defendants' attorneys also urged jurors to temper their compassion for the dead girl's family with a clear-eyed search for the truth.
"I'm not going to suggest that you not feel emotion in this case," attorney Paul Catalano told the jury that will begin its deliberations today. "But I also want you to keep reason, common sense and intellect together."
Catalano's remarks opened the final day of arguments in the 5-week-old trial of his client, Manuel Rosales, 22, along with Anthony Gabriel Rodriguez, 28, and 17-year-olds Hugo David Gomez and Augustin Lizama.
All four have pleaded not guilty to charges that they murdered 3-year-old Stephanie and attempted to kill five others, including Stephanie's mother, who were in a car that ventured onto a gang-controlled street in Cypress Park at 1:45 a.m. on Sept. 17, 1995.
From the moment the shooting occurred, it has come to symbolize the colliding worlds of civility and gang terror, especially because Stephanie's mother and others said they were only on that street after making a wrong turn heading home from a birthday party.
"This is a city street," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Pat Dixon in his closing argument Wednesday. "Every one of us has a right to drive a city street safely without being blown up in the manner this car was."
As the jurors were sent off to deliberate, Dixon predicted that weeks, months or years from now, as they gather with family and friends, they will be able to discuss how bad crime has gotten in society.
"You'll say, 'Four thugs killed a little girl in a car.' And you know what? You'll say that because it's the absolute truth," Dixon said.
Defense lawyers, mindful of the shooting's tragic results, have gently challenged the "wrong-way" theory.
In the jury's presence, they contended that the family was familiar with the area and by driving down the dimly lit street, may have caused unknown gang members to believe they were about to be the victims of a drive-by shooting.
Outside the jury's presence, Superior Court Judge Edward Ferns denied the defense permission to raise questions about why the family was in the vicinity at that hour--including any references to the possible purchase of narcotics. Fern, in making his ruling, said no evidence of such activity was introduced during the trial.
The most pointed defense for all four defendants was aimed at the prosecution's key witness: former gang member Marvin Pech, who was arrested for the crime but later given immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony.
"The prosecution has chosen to place its case squarely on the shoulders of Marvin Pech," Lawrence Forbes, Gomez's attorney, said, calling Pech "an accomplice."
Lizama lawyer Arnold Widener was more direct: "I believe Mr. Pech got away with murder. He even fooled the district attorney."
But prosecutor Dixon scoffed at those charges, insisting that the evidence in the case substantiated Pech's account of an evening where a group of gang members, after partying for hours, opened fire on a car as it attempted to flee their dead-end street.
"These defendants, these gang members caused that nightmare," Dixon told the jury, angrily dismissing any notion that Stephanie's family brought the tragedy upon themselves by venturing into the wrong place at the wrong time.
Wednesday's session began with an unusual motion by defense attorney James Sussman for a mistrial for his client, Rodriguez, on grounds that another defense lawyer's closing arguments reflected poorly on Sussman.
That attorney, Catalano, had said some defense lawyers try to confuse the facts on behalf of their clients. Catalano, who represents Rosales, denied that he was referring to Sussman.
Ferns denied the mistrial motion.