Jurors deadlocked Thursday in the trial of three of the four men charged in the killing of a 13-year-old Whittier girl who was taken to a remote area of Elysian Park, where she was raped and shot to death nearly 17 years ago.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Larry Paul Fidler declared a mistrial after jurors reported that they could not reach a unanimous verdict on the murder charge against Santos Grimaldi, 35, Melvin Sandoval, 38, and Rogelio Contreras, 40, stemming from Jacqueline Piazza’s June 2001 killing.
The downtown Los Angeles jury was handed the case March 7 and deliberated over portions of 12 days. The panel split 8-4 in favor of acquitting Grimaldi and Contreras and 9-3 in favor of acquitting Sandoval, according to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.
The jury acquitted Contreras of one count of kidnapping to commit another crime, but did not reach a verdict on the same charge against Grimaldi and Sandoval.
Prosecutors plan to retry the case.
The three men are due back in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom May 4 for a pretrial hearing.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Grimaldi and Sandoval. Contreras could face life in prison without parole if he is convicted as charged.
A separate jury convicted a fourth defendant, Jorge Palacios, on March 1 of first-degree murder and kidnapping to commit another crime. That jury also found true 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, along with gang and gun allegations.
Palacios is facing life in prison without the possibility of parole, with sentencing set for April 11.
In the trial of Grimaldi, Contreras and Sandoval, Deputy District Attorney Dayan Mathai said the evidence showed that Palacios told the men that 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 said the teenager had been raped, with DNA testing showing that a 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 jurors that his client had sex with the teen, but didn’t have any motive to murder her.
“He’s not here to be judged for having sex with that young girl,” the defense attorney said, telling jurors that his client had no reason to sexually assault the girl in the park and urging the panel to acquit Sandoval.
Contreras’ attorney, Richard LaPan, said his client was “telling you the truth” and “shouldn’t be a defendant.”
“Your duty is to find the truth,” he said. “Please don’t guess. Guessing convicts innocent people.”
Palacios, Grimaldi, Sandoval and Contreras were indicted in May 2012 in connection with the girl’s killing.