Yuba County Superior Court Judge Julia Scrogin recently sentenced a man found guilty of murder in a 2019 car-to-car shooting to life in prison without the possibility of parole plus 100 years to life in state prison.
In March, a Yuba County jury found Avery Elijah Sanchez, 22, guilty of first-degree murder and two counts of attempted murder. The charges stemmed from Sanchez and Vivion Wallace, 23, shooting from a car into another car on Highway 70 in May 2019. One of the three men in the other car, Alejandro Escobar, 38, was killed.
Wallace pleaded guilty in February 2020 to murder and is currently serving 62 years to life in state prison.
Sanchez’s attorney, Roberto Marquez, filed a motion for a new trial last week that was denied by Scrogin on Monday prior to sentencing. In his motion, Marquez argued that Sanchez did not get a fair trial because the court erred in allowing Sanchez’s admission of gang affiliation and the evidence provided by law enforcement about Norteno and Surenos street gangs to be presented as evidence during trial.
In the motion, Marquez said that evidence of gang membership creates the risk a jury will infer a defendant has a criminal disposition and is therefore guilty. It was alleged that a blue hat on the dashboard of the victims’ vehicle and gang rivalry led to the shooting.
“However, no evidence was produced which substantiated the alleged ‘gang motive.’ A blue hat on the dashboard is wholly insufficient to establish such a motive,” Marquez wrote in his motion.
Marquez pointed out that the jury deliberated for approximately four hours. In addition, a juror reached out to the district attorney’s office about concerns over Sanchez obtaining their address. He said both of those incidents indicated that presentation of gang affiliation showed Sanchez’s right to a fair trial was denied.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Shiloh Sorbello opposed the motion for a retrial. In his motion, Sorbello provided examples of previous cases that demonstrated a legal basis for introducing gang evidence. The gang affiliation evidence was presented to establish a motive for the shooting, according to the motion.
“The defense has raised no cognizable justification for a new trial in this case,” Sorbello wrote in his motion.
On Monday, Escobar’s wife and his brother provided victim impact statements and asked for the maximum sentence, according to Sorbello. Scrogin sentenced Sanchez to life in prison without the possibility of parole plus 100 years to life in state prison and ordered him to pay $61,000 in restitution.
Later in the day, Juan Antonio Barajas, III, the driver of the car carrying Wallace and Sanchez, was placed on two years probation, received 420 hours in the Sheriff’s Work Alternative Program (SWAP), sentenced to five days in jail, and ordered to pay $15,000 in restitution to the family.
“The defendant (Barajas) apologized to the family, pledged to pay full restitution in the next week, and expressed his remorse for his involvement in the case as an accessory after the fact,” Sorbello said in an email on Tuesday. “The wife of the deceased victim testified in the Barajas sentencing hearing, as well. She thanked Barajas for eventually doing the right thing.”
In February 2020, Barajas pleaded guilty to being an accessory to the murder of Escobar. He cooperated with law enforcement during the investigation and testified in the Sanchez trial. Marquez said as part of the plea agreement, Barajas had to tell the truth when testifying during the trial.
Sorbello said the maximum sentence for Barajas could have been three years.
“The victim (and the people) was satisfied with SWAP in lieu of more jail time, due to security concerns for someone who has testified against a known gang member and the fact that Barajas has demonstrated remorse while maintaining employment,” Sorbello said. “This is the first contact Barajas has had with law enforcement, so we hope that he will steer clear from negative relationships or further criminal activity.”
Marquez said that agreement should have been voided when Barajas took the stand and made statements different from when he was interviewed by law enforcement. During his closing argument, Sorbello told the jury that Barajas had lied about his not seeing the blue hat in the other car and other statements, Marquez said.
“Judge Scrogin stated at the time of Barajas’s sentencing that she believed he testified truthfully, and she was aware of Barajas’s various statements (at the time of his arrest, his subsequent interviews, and his testimony at trial),” Sorbello said. “Therefore, Barajas’s plea was accepted by the court.”
Marquez called the difference between the sentence Sanchez received and that of Barajas “a miscarriage of justice.”
“All he had to do was slow down, brake, and this shooting would never have occurred,” Marquez said of Barajas.
It was alleged that Barajas followed the victims’ car for 13 minutes before the shooting took place.
“That’s a long time for Mr. Barajas to take some action,” Marquez said.
Marquez said he plans to file a notice of appeal to the Third District Court of Appeal to get Sanchez a new trial. He said he has up to 60 days after Monday to file his motion.