A 23-year-old alleged gang member pleaded not guilty Monday to killing a USC jazz student during an attempted robbery just blocks from campus.
An attorney for Ivan Hernandez, who is charged with murder with gang allegations in the shooting death of 21-year-old Victor McElhaney, told City News Service his client was “absolutely not” a member of a gang and was charged as one because of the demographics of the neighborhood where he lives and his friends.
“Mere association alone does not make you a gang member,” attorney R.J. Manuelian said, adding that a gang expert plans to testify on behalf of the defense.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Teresa Sullivan ordered Hernandez, who is being held without bail, to return to court Oct. 31, when a date is expected to be set for a preliminary hearing to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to proceed to trial.
In addition to murder, Hernandez is charged with attempted second-degree robbery of a friend who was with McElhaney.
The criminal complaint includes the special circumstance allegations of murder during an attempted robbery and murder by an active participant in a criminal street gang, along with an allegation that he personally and intentionally discharged a handgun.
Prosecutors will decide later whether to seek the death penalty against Hernandez, who was arrested June 28 by detectives from the Los Angeles Police Department’s Robbery-Homicide Division.
Manuelian, who substituted in as Hernandez’ lawyer at the hearing, asked the judge not to allow cameras to photograph his client during arraignment. He argued that there are issues of identity and Sullivan agreed.
“The people that were involved gave self-serving statements to the police — statements that will ultimately be impeached in a formal proceeding,” the defense attorney alleged outside the courtroom.
Evidence and witness statements led detectives to believe that Hernandez was involved in the attack, Los Angeles police said in a previous statement.
McElhaney, the son of an Oakland city councilwoman, was shot in the head just after midnight March 10 near Maple Avenue and Adams Boulevard and died at a hospital.
The victim, who was a student at USC’s Thornton School of Music, was with a group of friends when they were approached by three or four men in their 20s during an attempted robbery that led to the shooting, authorities said.
McElhaney was part of the USC jazz studies program with an interest in the relationship between music and social and political movements. He also mentored young musicians and taught at the Oakland Public Conservatory of Music.
Shortly after the killing, Lynette Gibson McElhaney said her son “believed that music could heal the world of violence and sickness and addiction.”
His shooting death marked the latest of several high-profile killings of students in apparent robberies or attempted robberies near USC’s campus in recent years.
Xinran Ji, a USC graduate student from China, was walking back to his apartment near campus after a study session when he was attacked on July 24, 2014. He managed to make it back to his apartment, where one of his roommates discovered the 24-year-old electrical engineering student’s body.
Alberto Ochoa, the last of four defendants charged in Ji’s beating death, sentenced in March to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Two others, Alejandra Guerrero and Andrew Garcia, had already been sentenced to life in prison without parole, while the getaway driver, Jonathan Del Carmen, was ordered to serve a 15-year-to-life state prison sentence.
Two other USC graduate students from China — Ying Wu and Ming Qu — were shot to death during an April 2012 robbery as they sat in a car that was double-parked on a street near the USC campus. Javier Bolden and Bryan Barnes were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for their killings.
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