Jury returns not guilty verdict in gang fight case

By Erin Rossiter, gainesvilletimes.com
A Hall County jury found two men not guilty of fighting during a quick battle between rival gangs last June that left several men injured and one man dead.

Fernando Acosta bowed his head slightly Friday as a clerk read the verdict in Superior Court Judge Jason J. Deal’s Hall County courtroom. He remained for the reading of the jury’s second decision, which came a short time later at 6 p.m.

The panel, which deliberated for nearly five hours, had expressed division about Acosta’s co-defendant and friend, Juan Pablo Hurtado. But in the end, a not guilty judgment on the charge of affray, or fighting, nullified the gang participation charge that split them.

Acosta was found not guilty of both charges outright.

After the trial, defense lawyers Arturo Corso and Jerry C. Carter Jr. said the case turned on one prosecution witness, Wilson Almendares.

Carter billed Almendares, an admitted La Onda gang member, as a “general” who mustered his BOE 23 allies for a well-planned assault of their SUR 13 foes.

The groups met at 5 a.m. June 13 near the mailboxes at Lenox Park Apartment complexes, where Hurtado lives and was being driven home, Carter argued.

While SUR 13 members may have aggravated the situation, Hurtado and Acosta acted in defense of their friend, Daniel Adame, who was struck hard at the beginning of the physical struggle that lasted about five minutes, the lawyers said. He later died.

“The jury understood our argument of self defense and defense of others,” Carter said.

During cross-examination, Corso exposed facts about Almendares’ cooperation with authorities, which visibly moved the jury.

After being charged with a felony in 2009, Almendares, an El Salvador native in the U.S. illegally, was released on bond and given his work permit to remain in the United States. He then agreed to share information about gangs with officers.

“I think the jury was outraged. I was outraged,” Corso said, expressing his shock at Almendares’ admission on the witness stand. “We are not going to let criminals be the testimony that puts innocent people away for the rest of their lives.”

In October, Almendares pleaded guilty to the 2009 aggravated assault case as well as his involvement in last summer’s fight. Testifying in the cases associated with the June incident was part of his deal, court records show.

In all nine men were charged in connection with the fight that led to the death of Adame, injured Acosta and Almendares, whose face was cut in the conflict.

Only Juan Villanueva was indicted in Adame’s death on charges of first-degree vehicular homicide. Many of the same witnesses are expected to appear in that trial, tentatively scheduled for April, lawyers said.

District Attorney Lee Darragh was present for Friday’s verdict reading. He said the result will not keep the state from pursuing justice in gang-related cases.

“Though the verdicts rendered in this case were contrary to what we believe the evidence was, the jury has spoken,” Darragh said.

“For the protection of all the citizens of Hall County, the office of the district attorney and the fine law enforcement agencies in our community will not be deterred from continuing to prosecute gang members who engage in and participate in violence in the name of their gangs.”

In her closing statement, Assistant District Attorney Juliet Aldridge focused on the realistic nature of street gangs, which Almendares testified to, as well as the anger that fuels them.

He said his car was twice followed by another vehicle in the hours and day before the 5 a.m. fight. He believed rival gang members were targeting him. Such an action requires a response on the street, he said. You have to answer when “they try you,” Almendares said.

When they arrived to the parking lot, everybody present knew what was about to happen, Aldridge said.

“This was cutting off cars, throwing gang signs, screaming at each other and ‘just getting down,’ ” Aldridge said, referencing Hurtado’s words uttered in his interview with police. “They were both looking for trouble. They were both looking for a fight. And it happened.”

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