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Crime & Justice

Pedro Espinoza sentenced to death in Jamiel Shaw Jr. murder

Pedro Espinoza in court in 2008, where he pleaded not guilty to having shot Jamiel Shaw, Jr., a Los Angeles high school football star.
Pedro Espinoza in court in 2008, where he pleaded not guilty to having shot Jamiel Shaw, Jr., a Los Angeles high school football star.
Al Seib/AP

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L.A. Superior Court Judge Ronald Rose sentenced Pedro Espinoza to death Friday afternoon in the killing of Los Angeles High School football standout Jamiel Shaw Jr. in March 2008. The sentence brings at least a temporary end to a case that raised issues of immigration policy, jail oversight and gang violence in L.A.

"I knew," Jamiel Shaw Sr. said about the verdict. "The judge was there; he saw the coroner's photos. What else could he do?"

Shaw's son and namesake was walking home when Espinoza — who was in the neighborhood to visit a friend — approached him and shot him twice, once in the abdomen and again in the head. Prosecutors said Espinoza, a member of the 18th Street gang, pegged Shaw as a rival gang member because he was wearing a red, Spider-Man backpack. 

Members of Shaw's family spoke during the court hearing. His mother, Anita Shaw, was serving her second tour as a U.S. Army sergeant in Iraq when she recieved news of her son's death.

"I lost it," she said. "I still don't understand why it happened."

Espinoza's attorney, Csaba Plafi, argued for a sentence of life without parole. Espinoza was 19 at the time of the murder, Plafi said, and he'd led a tough life up to that point. Espinoza was brought to the United States at a young age, Plafi said. His gang involvement started when he was 10 years old, and he "spent most of his life in juvenile camps" that Plafi called "gladiator schools."

Groomed for 'something else'

"While Mr. Shaw was being groomed for success, Mr. Espinoza was being groomed for something else," Plafi said. 

Plafi also hinted at possible touchpoints for future hearings of the case. Because it's a death sentence, it's subject to automatic appeal to the California Supreme Court.

Plafi referred to Judge Rose's decision to bar cell phone photos found on the Internet that the defense claimed as evidence that Shaw, the victim, had gang ties. Plafi said such evidence, if allowed, would have helped Espinoza make a possible self-defense claim.

The judge scoffed at the idea. 

"The suspect executed the victim," he said. "I want everyone to understand that it was made explicit in this courtroom that [Shaw] was a good, decent teenage boy."

Plafi conferred often with Espinoza, who agressively directed the attorney. He often downplayed his own performance during the trial, potentially paving the way for Espinoza to claim that his counsel was incompetent during the trial.

Rose, meanwhile, regularly referred to Plafi as highly competent, saying he did all he could in light of the overwhelming evidence against Espinoza.

"It's not unusual for an attorney to fall on his own sword to save his client," Rose said.  

The sentence arrives days before voters take up a ballot initiative that, if passed, would end capital punishment in California and convert all death sentences to life without parole.

Jamiel Shaw Sr. said he'd be at peace with whatever happens during the election, although he plans to vote against Proposition 34.

The family left the courthouse Friday after four and a half years of proceedings. They return to the same home where the family lived when Jamiel Shaw Jr. was alive.

People often ask them why they don't move out of the house and the neighborhood, Shaw said.

"I'm connected to that spot until I die," he said.