INDIO - A jury recommended today that a gang member who robbed and killed a man in a Cathedral City driveway be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Miguel Najera, 28, was convicted Dec. 2 of first-degree murder and robbery for the May 28, 2006, slaying of 40-year-old Adrian Cedeno at a home on C Street.
The murder charge included the special circumstance allegation that he was an active gang member, which made him eligible for one of two punishments: the death penalty or life imprisonment.
The 10-woman, two-man jury, which heard nearly two weeks of testimony in the penalty phase of the trial, deliberated for about three hours before deciding that Najera's life should be spared.
He will be formally sentenced Feb. 5 by Riverside County Superior Court Judge James Hawkins.
The defendant's family members, including cousin Lupe Valdivia, wiped away tears as the verdict was read.
"Everything was in God's hands. That's all we wanted was life," Valdivia said. "We'll support him to the end."
Najera's attorney, John Aquilina, said it "is very pleasing that the jury decided to save Mr. Najera's life. Obviously, we're also disappointed on the guilty verdict, but hopeful we'll see what happens to that in the future as far as appellate proceedings are concerned."
Michael Jeandron, a spokesman with the District Attorney's Office, said prosecutors were thankful the defendant will no longer "pose a threat to our community."
"We certainly felt the death penalty was an appropriate punishment for the crime, but we respect the right of the jury to make that determination," he said. "We are thankful that this defendant will be held accountable and go to prison for the rest of his life."
Deputy District Attorney Victoria Weiss had asked jurors Tuesday in her closing argument to choose the death penalty for Najera.
"He could have let Adrian go. He chose not to. He could have chosen to let Adrian live. He chose not to. He showed no compassion and no mercy," Weiss said.
She said Najera held Cedeno at gunpoint in a driveway and slapped him across the face, but the victim did not react and emptied his pockets of his wallet, as ordered. Once Cedeno was done handing over his property, Najera shot him, according to the prosecutor.
She urged jurors to consider Najera's criminal history as evidence that he refused to change his ways while in prison.
"This is a man who has no regard for human life," the prosecutor said.
Najera was convicted in 2000 of burglary and in 2002 and 2004 of possession of a controlled substance.
Najera's attorney, John Aquilina, said his client fled from an abusive home as a teen and took refuge in the streets, where he became involved in drugs.
He pointed to testimony from the defendant's family members that Najera had a tough upbringing, but had some good in him.