A gang member convicted of the execution-style killings of two men in Indio more than a decade ago professed his innocence moments before a judge sentenced him to death.
“I honestly did not do this,” Elias Carmona Lopez told Riverside County Superior Court Judge Richard A. Erwood. “I can’t hold remorse for something I didn’t do.”
Lopez, 30, apologized to the victims’ families “for their loss … I can’t imagine.”
Jurors in October recommended capital punishment for Lopez, who was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder for the shooting deaths of Erineo Perez and Martin Garcia on Oct. 10 and Oct. 26, 2004, respectively.
In the guilt phase of the trial, the panel found true special circumstance allegations of lying in wait, multiple murders and committing the murder for the benefit of a criminal street gang, making Lopez eligible for a death sentence.
During his statement to the court, he turned several times to members of Perez’s family in the audience, urging that he was not the killer.
“I did not murder your son, your brother,” he said on one occasion, leading Perez’s older sister, Vicki Castro, to stand and leave the courtroom.
According to Deputy District Attorney Scot L. Clark, Lopez was paid to kill Perez, who was shot several times while sitting inside his vehicle near Indio City Hall. The defendant snuck up on the 25-year-old victim from behind, the prosecutor said.
Garcia, 18, was found dead in an Indio alley, where Lopez lured him under false pretenses, claiming no animosity over their rival gang status before killing him, Clark said.
Both victims were shot several times, including in the face.
Castro, who witnessed her brother’s final moments, told the judge the loss of “Junior” devastated the family.
“We’ll never get to see what success he would have become, what he would have accomplished, where he would have been, how he would have been.
A picture on a tombstone does not suffice, your honor. It’s not enough for us,” she said. “What the defendant took was a big part of our hearts, a huge part of my soul.”
Clark read a statement from Martin Garcia’s mother, in which she said her family “will never be the same” and that if her son’s killer “is let out, he will do it again.”
Lopez’s attorney Demitra Tolbert, echoed her client’s claims of innocence.
“Normally when we get to this position, your honor, as you well know, we are asking the court to forgive, we are asking the court for leniency, we are asking the court for compassion. In this case, we don’t mean disrespect, but we do still believe that Mr. Lopez is not guilty of these crimes,” Tolbert said.
Clark argued death was the appropriate punishment for a defendant who he said demonstrated that he’s a danger to others even while imprisoned.
During the penalty phase of the trial, Clark read transcripts of recorded phone calls that Lopez made while in prison in 2010, in which he gave out the home addresses of his ex-girlfriend and her boyfriend, and the boyfriend’s work address to other gang members. Lopez also expressed anger in the phone calls over the ex-girlfriend testifying against him.
Clark said Lopez had told her that he’d committed both murders, providing her details that only the killer would have known.
Tolbert questioned the credibility of Lopez’s ex-girlfriend, citing substance abuse and a subsequent relationship with a rival gang member as clouding both her judgment and objectivity towards Lopez.
Shell casings taken from both crime scenes came from the same gun, a .22- caliber Smith & Wesson found beneath Lopez’s mattress, Clark said.
Tolbert argued that the evidence did not prove the murders were committed by the same person, only that the same gun — which her client claimed he had been holding for a friend he refused to identify — was used.
Clark said a number of other potential suspects suggested to be the killer by the defense could easily be ruled out.
According to the prosecutor, none of the supposed killers had connections to both Perez and Garcia, and none of them could have managed to get the murder weapon underneath Lopez’s mattress.
Tolbert maintained that detectives did not fully pursue the connections between those suspects and the victims to the extent necessary, saying “law enforcement failed miserably” in its investigation, dismissing potential suspects and not following through with DNA testing or witness interviews at both crime scenes.
Lopez was an early suspect in both killings, but there was insufficient evidence to prosecute the case until July 2008, according to the prosecution. He was serving an eight-year sentence at an Arizona prison when the murder case was filed against him.
During his first trial in early 2016, jurors deadlocked 11-1 in favor of conviction after about six weeks of testimony.