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Special Grand Jury Issues Murder Indictments

Two men await trial as Ventura County panel is given its first homicide cases in nearly two years.

August 19, 2003|Tracy Wilson | Times Staff Writer

Two men have been indicted on murder charges in connection with slayings in Fillmore and Oxnard, marking the first time in nearly two years that Ventura County prosecutors have presented homicide cases before a grand jury.

Last week, a panel selected to hear only criminal matters indicted Samuel Puebla, 18, on charges of murder and attempted rape in the January death of 19-year-old Valerie Zavala, a student at San Jose State University who had returned home to Fillmore for the holidays.

The grand jury also indicted Jose Garcia, 20, on murder charges in connection with the shotgun slaying of Davey Marceleno at his Oxnard apartment in February. Garcia faces allegations that he killed Marceleno by ambush and to promote a street gang.

Those allegations expose Garcia to a possible death sentence, although prosecutors have not decided whether to seek the death penalty.

The indictments will allow prosecutors to proceed directly to trial rather than hold preliminary hearings, in which defense attorneys could cross-examine prosecution witnesses and present their own cases.

Puebla, a student at Fillmore High School, is scheduled to stand trial Jan. 12. Garcia is scheduled to be arraigned Sept. 10, with a trial date expected to be set then.

Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Maeve Fox, who presented evidence to the grand jury the last two weeks, said her office decided to seek indictments and bypass preliminary hearings because of sensitive evidence in the two cases.

"It is a better venue, we think, to spare the trauma for the victims' families," Fox said. "It is a good tool that we use."

It has been a seldom-used tool, however, after court rulings last year that resulted in three high-profile murder indictments being set aside.

In response to a challenge by public defenders, Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Frank Ochoa determined that the grand jury selection process used by the Ventura County courts was flawed.

Specifically, Ochoa concluded that the 2000-01 Ventura County Grand Jury contained too few women and did not reflect a cross-section of the community, as required by law.

Although Ochoa found there was no intentional discrimination, he ordered that the indictments of murder defendants Vincent Sanchez, Michael Schultz and David Ziesmer be set aside.

Ochoa's ruling opened the door for additional legal challenges and led prosecutors to accept plea agreements from members of the Hells Angels motorcycle club who were indicted as part of a massive drug and racketeering case.

In the wake of Ochoa's ruling, prosecutors steered clear of the county grand jury, which is composed of volunteers and traditionally serves as a government watchdog.

A special criminal grand jury was used once last year, when a senior deputy district attorney sought and obtained indictments in nine weapons cases. But the Garcia and Puebla cases were the first homicide cases for such a panel in nearly two years.

The panel rejected by Ochoa was a so-called "blue ribbon" grand jury, made up of residents who volunteered for one-year terms. Members of the recent criminal grand jury were ordered to court through jury summons and selected at random in a process similar to jury selection for a civil or criminal trial.

The criminal grand jurors who indicted Puebla and Garcia will serve for six months and only appear in court when a criminal case is presented for their consideration, according to court officials.

Ventura County Assistant Public Defender Duane Dammeyer, whose office challenged the makeup of the grand jury, called the changes an improvement. But Dammeyer questioned whether the new selection process is leading to more diverse panels, as prosecutors contend, and predicted that "there will still be a close examination as to whether the selection process was truly random and truly a fair grand jury."

Fox said Monday that prosecutors feel confident that indictments by the new criminal grand jury would withstand legal challenges based on the randomness of the selection process, which she said has resulted in a more diverse 19-member panel.

"They were a very representative group from the community," she said.

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