lady justice blindfolded holding scales of justice

A prosecutor told jurors Tuesday that a 13-year-old Whittier girl was taken to a remote area of Elysian Park where she was raped and shot to death more than 16 years ago, while an attorney for one of the four reputed gang members charged with the teen’s killing countered that his client has been wrongly accused.

A jury in downtown Los Angeles is hearing the case against Santos Grimaldi, 35; Melvin Sandoval, 38, and Rogelio Contreras, 40, who are charged with the June 2001 killing of Jacqueline Piazza.

A separate jury is hearing the case against co-defendant Jorge Palacios, 39, who is being tried in the same courtroom.

In his opening statement to jurors hearing the case against Grimaldi, Sandoval and Contreras, Deputy District Attorney Dayan Mathai said the evidence would show that Palacios told the other gang members they had to get rid of the teenage runaway after he and his girlfriend beat the girl, whom he called an enemy.

The prosecutor told jurors that Grimaldi, Sandoval and Contreras took the crying girl — who was eventually forced to ride in the trunk of the car — to a wilderness area in Elysian Park, where her body was found the next morning by a hiker walking with his dog.

“This crime against Jacqueline was a violent murder where she was shot twice in the head and this is how she was left,” Mathai said, showing jurors a photo of the victim wearing only a pair of socks and shoes.

The prosecutor told jurors that the teenager had been raped, with DNA testing showing that a DNA sample consistent with Sandoval’s DNA was found on a vaginal swab taken from the victim and that a DNA sample consistent with Grimaldi’s DNA was collected from her breast.

Sandoval’s attorney, Victor Salerno, told the panel that his client had “nothing to do with the tragic murder and kidnapping” of the teen.

The defense lawyer called into question the upcoming testimony of the prosecution’s star witness about the girl’s killing and said jurors would hear about the police informant’s contradictory statements to law enforcement.

“He is innocent of the charges which are before you, the murder and the kidnapping,” Salerno said of Sandoval, telling jurors that his client had engaged in consensual sex with the girl within a one- to two-day period before she was killed.

In his opening statement Monday, Palacios’ attorney, Lawrence Forbes, told jurors that what had happened to the girl was a tragedy.

“But the evidence will show that Jorge Palacios had nothing to do with her death,” he said, telling the panel that it “would compound the tragedy to convict him.”

Attorneys for Grimaldi and Contreras reserved their opening statements until the start of the defense’s case.

The murder charge against the four men includes the special circumstance allegations of murder during a kidnapping, murder during a rape or attempted rape and murder during the commission or attempted commission of a lewd act on a child.

The four are also charged with a count each of kidnapping to commit another crime.

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Grimaldi and Sandoval. Contreras and Palacios could face life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted as charged.

Jurors are set to begin hearing testimony Wednesday.

–City News Service

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