Death penalty phase of murder trial gets underway

Angel Esparza could get death penalty for double murder

Indio - A prosecutor told jurors Wednesday that they would hear about the ``cruelty and callousness'' of a 30-year-old Coachella man who robbed, abducted and killed two farm workers in Thermal weeks after he gunned down a teenage boy.

Angel Anthony Esparza was convicted last Thursday in a retrial of two counts of first-degree murder for the Dec. 19, 2009, deaths of Gregorio Juarez and Pedro Garcia, and jurors found true special circumstance allegations of multiple murders and murder in the commission of robbery and kidnapping.

He was previously convicted of the Dec. 3, 2009, killing of 16-year-old Angel Luna and was sentenced to 75 years to life in prison.

The jury that convicted him of the double murder must now decide whether to recommend that Esparza be sentenced to death or life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Deputy District Attorney Jake Silva said in his opening statement in the penalty trial that jurors should put themselves in the farm workers' shoes as the two were bound and gagged in a Thermal trailer, put in their truck and driven to a vineyard, then put ``on their knees and executed.''

He said Esparza has committed other violent crimes -- he shot at a vehicle in 2001, robbed a man the same month he killed Luna, Juarez and Garcia, and beat a fellow jail inmate in 2011.

``Angel Esparza is a man who takes -- takes what he wants. He took the life of Gregorio Juarez after he took his property, he took the life of Pedro Garcia after he took his property, he took the life of Angel Luna, and took the property of (another man),'' Silva said. ``That is what he does; that is who he is.''

After all the evidence is presented, ``I will ask you to impose the most severe punishment -- of death,'' the prosecutor said.

Defense attorney John Patrick Dolan reserved his opening statement for later in the penalty phase.

On Dec. 19, 2009, Esparza was staying at the Thermal residence of Christina Zapata and her daughter, Cecilia Morin, while on the run from law enforcement. Esparza entered Morin's bedroom with a revolver -- where the two men planned to pay her for sex -- and ordered Garcia and Juarez to the floor, took their wallets and bound them with cords and duct tape. He and Zapata drove them to a vineyard at Avenue 58 and Pierce Street, and Esparza dragged them into the vineyard, Silva said.

Later, Zapata's boyfriend, who had a can of gasoline with him, drove Zapata and Esparza back to the vineyard, and Esparza took the gas and a bag of the victims' belongings into the vineyard. The next morning, Juarez and Garcia were found shot in the head and burned, the prosecutor said.

Esparza was arrested in San Bernardino on Dec. 24, 2009, and authorities found a gun that matched a projectile in Garcia's head, Silva said.

Dolan told jurors during the guilt phase of the trial that Morin and Zapata ``lied to you and said Mr. Esparza was involved in this and he wasn't.''

``In the end you will find this is nothing more than a set-up so two women who are prostitutes, thieves and drug addicts can get a better sentence,'' Dolan said.

Morin and Zapata refused to testify in the trial -- their previous testimony was read in court.

They each pleaded guilty in the case to two counts of second-degree murder last year in exchange for sentences of 15 years to life in prison.

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