One of four Duarte gang members convicted of murder in connection with three homicides in Pasadena that sprung out of a gang feud was sentenced Monday to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Derion Lee, 36, was found guilty in December of conspiracy and three counts of first-degree murder in the killings of 25-year-old Brandon Douglas and Antoine Sutphen Jr. and Ormoni Duncan, both 24 years old.
The jury also found true special circumstance allegations of multiple murders, murder by discharge of a firearm from a vehicle and gang allegations.
Lee’s co-defendants: Isaiah Daniels, 26; Pernell Barnes, 22; and Charod Robinson, 30, are set to be sentenced in August and September. A fifth defendant — 29-year-old Andrew Vasquez — was acquitted of all charges.
Douglas was killed on Dec. 22, 2016, in the 1200 block of North Fair Oaks Avenue. Sutphen and Duncan were gunned down in the same block on Jan. 7, 2017, while attending a vigil for Douglas. Authorities said they were the victims of a clash between street gangs in Pasadena and Duarte.
Before handing down more than a half dozen consecutive life sentences with no possibility of parole, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charlaine F. Olmedo told Lee, “Your desire to live a gangster lifestyle … led you down a terrible path with horrific consequences for all involved, and that includes you.”
The judge called the crimes “tragic, callous and cowardly,” noting that Sutphen and Duncan were killed at a vulnerable moment while in mourning.
In addition to ruining the lives of the men’s families, “you have destroyed your own life,” Olmedo told Lee, though she imagined he wouldn’t fully realize that until later in life when “the weight of your actions will haunt you.”
Many members of Douglas’ family made statements to the court, as did Sutphen’s mother. Duncan’s family is expected to do the same at sentencing for the other defendants, according to Deputy District Attorney Stefan Mrakich.
Several broke down in tears while recalling all they had lost.
Douglas’ mother, flanked by her daughter and another son, said the family had been packing for Christmas travel and she was baking pies when her son left to go downtown to shop for some family gifts. She took note of his red backpack and thought about saying something because of the color’s significance to gangs, but he was out the door before she did.
“My life has forever changed,” Kathy Morgan said, asking the court to impose the maximum sentence. “We feel the void of Brandon every day.”
Sutphen’s mother, Andrea Holcomb, told the court she prays to God to forgive.
“I forgive these bad people. I will never forgive what has happened … I am forever heartbroken,” Holcomb said in tears. “Rest well, my son, Mommy got justice for you.”
Lee, dressed in blue jail clothes and handcuffed to his chair, sat quietly throughout the victims’ statements, leaning over now and then to talk to his attorney. He chose not to make a statement.
Nandi Hughes was six months pregnant with Sutphen’s child when he was killed. She held her 2-year-old daughter and told the court she felt compelled to speak on behalf of the toddler and her nearly 8-year-old sister.
“She’s sentenced to life without her dad,” Hughes said of the younger girl and told the court that her older sister cries inconsolably over missing her father. “(She was) robbed of that by people she didn’t even know, that didn’t know him.”
Douglas’ stepmother, speaking without notes, railed against the senselessness of her stepson’s killing.
“He had a backpack on, he had earbuds in his ears, he had his back turned … there was no reason … they’re just cowards,” she said.
The killers wrote, “we got one” on an area wall, according to the stepmother, who also recalled gang members “sniggling and laughing” during the court proceedings.
“All of a sudden now it’s quiet,” she said, warning that God would render a final judgment.. “The party’s over now … you have to stand in your own shoes.”
Lee’s defense attorney, Derrick W. Smalls, made a motion for a new trial, arguing that the defense should have been able to present evidence about another man, who was a member of a rival street gang and who made threats against an associate of one of the victims.
“There was no evidence giving the jury an alternative (to convicting my client),” Smalls said.
The judge rejected that argument and others presented by the defense, saying circumstances exonerated that suspect. Olmedo said she found the evidence against Lee to be very powerful.
“His own words … really ended up convicting him,” the judge said, adding that wiretapped conversations used as evidence offered the rare opportunity to “go into a perpetrator’s mind.”
After detailing Lee’s sentence, she urged the families to “try to live your lives in a way that honors your loved ones and always carry him in your hearts.”