Jail - photo courtesy of Pexels

The California Supreme Court Monday upheld a man’s conviction and death sentence for murdering two people, including a man run over with his own car in Long Beach and a fellow jail inmate who had testified against him.

The state’s highest court unanimously rejected the defense’s contention that there were errors in the trial of Santiago Pineda, who is now 41 and behind bars at San Quentin State Prison.

Pineda was convicted in December 2006 of first-degree murder for the March 7, 2002, killing of Rafael Sanchez — also known as Juan Armenta — who was struck by his own 1992 Infiniti G20 in the early morning hours of March 7, 2002, along with the April 20, 2004, slaying of Raul Tinajero while the two were behind bars at Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles.

Jurors also found true the special circumstance allegations of murder during the commission of a robbery, murder of a witness and multiple murders.

Deputy District Attorney Lesley Klein told jurors during Pineda’s trial that he choked and repeatedly ran over Sanchez because he wanted to get his car and later murdered Tinajero because he “wanted to get off” for the earlier killing.

“This defendant is evil,” the prosecutor said as she stood in front of a mock jail cell set up in the middle of the courtroom. “He killed two people in cold blood for his own selfish needs and wants.”

Sanchez was choked inside his vehicle, thrown out of the car to the ground and run over several times, with Pineda subsequently returning and running over him again on Palmer Court in Long Beach, according to the California Supreme Court’s 111-page ruling.

Just over two years after that crime, Pineda confronted Tinajero in a jail cell, choked him, put his head in the toilet, stomped on his neck and tied a ligature around his neck, Klein said.

Tinajero had received a grant of immunity to testify against Pineda, and there was a directive in place to keep the men apart in jail, according to the California Supreme Court’s ruling.

A forensic serologist who performed DNA tests on blood subsequently found on Pineda’s pants testified that it came from Tinajero, with a probability of one in 110 quadrillion that someone else left the blood, according to the ruling written on behalf of the court by Chief Justice Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye.

Pineda testified in his own defense during the trial, and denied intentionally hitting Sanchez or killing Tinajero, according to the ruling.

At Pineda’s February 2007 sentencing, then-Superior Court Judge William R. Pounders called the murders of Sanchez and Tinajero “cold-blooded and vicious, being up close and personal without any compassion.”

The judge called him a “Houdini in jail,” saying that he seemed to be “able to get around all of the obstacles placed before you, no matter what they are, which is in my view astonishing.”

“I’ve never seen anybody do that,” the judge added. “What’s so equally astonishing is your willingness to attack people without provocation and your viciousness in taking their lives. As you’ve said before, you chose this lifestyle and you’re willing to pay the consequences.”

Acknowledging that Pineda’s “upbringing was hampered by an alcoholic father, a degree of poverty and sometimes stern punishment,” the judge nevertheless said the evidence overwhelmingly supported the jurors’ recommendation that Pineda be sentenced to death.

Tinajero’s mother, Silvia, sued the county, alleging wrongful death of her son, and the Board of Supervisors approved a $700,000 settlement with her.

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