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Experts offer DNA, forensic testimony in Norteño double homicide trial

on January 8, 2013

After a two-week break, the trial of Steven Miranda, 23, and Ignacio Ruiz, 31, for the 2009 double homicide in a Richmond restaurant continued Monday in the Contra Costa Superior Courthouse in Martinez with expert testimony on DNA and forensics.

Miranda and Ruiz are each charged with two counts of murder, conspiracy to commit murder and gang offenses for their alleged roles in the shooting that left Alvarado Garcia-Pena, 23, and Intaz Ahmed, 32, dead inside Alvarado Bar and Grill.

According to the police report, Garcia-Pena and Ahmed were killed on September 30, 2009 when two men walked into the restaurant where they were having dinner and shot them at close range. The confessed shooter—Eliseo Flores—and the other accused man—Ruiz—then ran out of the restaurant and allegedly took off in a getaway car with Miranda and Victor Torres. Torres’ case was severed from Miranda’s and Ruiz’s; he will be tried later this year.

In his opening statement in November, Deputy District Attorney Aron DeFerrari called the slaying a “deadly gang ambush,” and said Miranda and Ruiz were both longtime members of Richmond Sur Trece, a local gang affiliated with the Sureños. The victims were known members of the rival Norteño gang.

DeFerrari said only one man is accused of firing the shotgun that killed both men—Flores, 25, who took a plea deal in 2011 for 25 years in prison—but all four are responsible.

In court on Monday, DeFerrari called Richmond Police Officer Clifford Calderan to the stand to testify about what he found when he arrived at Ruiz’s house shortly after the shooting.

Calderan was one of the officers dispatched to Ruiz’s house within minutes of other officers responding to the crime scene at the restaurant and noticing that both victims were wearing red, a color associated with the Norteños, and that they had gang-related tattoos. Ruiz’s house was located near the restaurant, and was known Sureño turf.

While listening with his ear to the garage, Calderan testified, he heard voices inside. After a few minutes Ruiz pushed the door up to open it. Calderan said Ruiz was alone in the garage.

Calderan said he found clothing burning on the floor of the garage, and that he quickly stomped out the fire with his boot. In the pile was a gray sweatshirt, white shirt and jeans that matched the description eyewitnesses had provided of the clothing worn by the men fleeing the restaurant with guns in hand.

“I broadcast to dispatch I’d located the white tee and gray sweatshirt,” Calderan said. He then arrested Ruiz, he testified.

Walking over to the projector, DeFerrari showed a picture of the inside of Ruiz’s garage with the pile of clothes visible next to two metal folding chairs and a couple of crumpled Budweiser cans. Every wall visible in the photograph is covered in blue graffiti. The spray-painted markings are hard to read, but the Sureño’s calling card, the phrase M13, stands out around the room. According to a study on Sureños funded by the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance, the gang claims the number 13 and color blue—members consider themselves to be “foot soldiers” for the Mexican Mafia.

The second witness, criminologist Da-Shing Peng, took the stand just before 11 am to testify about the DNA he recovered from the clothing found in Ruiz’s garage, which he said contained DNA from Torres, Flores and Ahmed—most likely due to blood spatter when Ahmed was shot. Peng works as a DNA analyst for the Department of Justice in Richmond and is qualified in this case as an expert witness. His testimony took nearly four hours as DeFerrari had him walk through the science behind DNA testing and matching.

After spending an hour explaining to the jury what DNA is, how it’s obtained and providing the jury with what Miranda’s public defender Rebecca Brackman termed “DNA analysis 101,” DeFerrari had Peng describe what he learned from the clothing he analyzed.

From the charred white shirt, Peng said, he was able to match Flores’ DNA to that found on the sleeve cuff. Flores’ DNA was also determined to be on the grip of the shotgun used in the killings, Peng said. Peng was not asked and did not specify whether this proved that Flores was the shooter.

Peng said the grey sweatshirt found burning on the floor had Torres’ DNA on the inside cuff. A blue bandana recovered near the garage at Ruiz’s house had DNA from Torres on the ends and Flores in the middle, he said. Before the court’s recess at the end of 2012 for the holiday break an eyewitness for the prosecution had testified to seeing two men with blue bandanas tied around their faces running from the scene.

Peng testified that on each of the objects he tested, there was more than the main identifiable contributor’s DNA present. But, he said, determining who else’s DNA it was is impossible because of the amount and quality of what was left behind. “Some people are better shedders than others,” he said, explaining that one person who wears a garment might leave behind more skin cells than another wearer.

Peng did not say that the DNA evidence found on the items meant that they either belonged to—or were worn by—anyone in particular.  “DNA can only tell you if he, or she, was present,” Peng said. “Not who touched it last, wore it, or was closest to it.”

Brackman spent some time cross-examining Peng on the issue of how DNA ends up on an object, and questioning his assertion that analysts cannot discover who wore an item last by the amount of DNA left behind. She asked Peng repeatedly if it was true that recent studies indicate that when more than one person has worn an item of clothing, often the presence of more DNA indicates who wore it last. Peng testified that he did not know of any studies with those findings.

During her second cross-examination of Peng, Brackman pulled out a large forensic analysis book that Peng had recommended she read before the trial started. After showing him an article that referenced one such study, Peng acknowledged there have been studies but would not agree with the results. Instead, Peng reiterated his earlier “shedder” explanation, saying that some people shed skin cells more than others and there are too many common materials (like dirt and bacteria) that can degrade DNA, making it impossible to determine by DNA who wore it last.

Brackman also walked Peng through potential problems with his assertions about how many people—besides the main contributor—might have left DNA behind on an item. “You cannot include or exclude anyone, isn’t that right?” she asked.

For most of the articles, Peng said, there was strong enough DNA present for him to match it with statistical certainty to a specific person. However, on those same articles he found evidence that indicated there was DNA present from other people. Brackman stressed that just knowing the garments had evidence of DNA from other people wasn’t enough. Who those people are, and how many different people might have left DNA behind, Brackman noted, could not be determined because there was not enough present to test.

Peng agreed, testifying that aside from the main contributors he was able to identify, there was not good enough DNA left behind by the other contributors to determine if any of it belonged to Miranda or Ruiz.

Daniel Cook, Ruiz’s lawyer, followed this same line of questioning, asking just one question during his cross-examination of Peng: “Is Ignacio Ruiz a source for any of the DNA?”

“No,” Peng said.

“OK. That’s all thanks,” Cook said.

After Peng, DeFerrari called his final witness of the day—Dr. Arnold Josselon, the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsies on both victims.

Josselon described in detail the injuries he found on each of the victims and the cause of death in each case. DeFerrari warned the families of the victims who were present that he would be showing pictures of the deceased, but they stayed in the room, wiping away tears, while he put up disturbing images from the autopsy. Josselon said that each of the men was shot at close range with a shotgun loaded with ammunition that contained birdshot, which left hundreds of small pellets embedded in the victims.

Ahmed had a large shotgun wound, two inches in diameter, to his right shoulder and a shotgun wound to the right side of his neck that caused him to die from blood loss, Josselon said. “He actually bled to death from the small pellets injuring blood vessels on the right side of the neck,” Josselon said.

Garcia-Pena died from a “large, fatal gunshot wound of his head,” Josselon said.

Ruiz looked straight down at his lap throughout Josselon’s testimony, while Miranda glanced on and off at the screen where DeFerrari was projecting the photographs.

Brackman and Cook declined to cross-examine Josselon. The trial will continue Tuesday morning at 9 am.

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