A judge today declared a penalty phase mistrial for two leaders of the violent Mexican “Los Palillos” drug trafficking gang, who were convicted of several murders and kidnappings in San Diego County between 2004 and 2007.

Jurors told Judge David Rubin that they were hopelessly deadlocked on whether to recommend the death penalty or life in prison without parole for Jorge Rojas Lopez and Juan Estrada Gonzalez.

The defendants smiled and hugged their attorneys after the mistrial was declared.

Prosecutors from the District Attorney’s Office must now decide whether they want to retry unresolved counts from the guilt phase and/or retry the penalty phase. A status conference is scheduled for March 12.

Rojas Lopez, 34, was found guilty in January of four murders, while Estrada Gonzalez, also 34, was convicted of six counts of first-degree murder in a trial that began in January 2013. Jurors deadlocked on seven charges, including five murder counts against Rojas Lopez.

In both cases, jurors found true special circumstance allegations of kidnapping, torture and multiple murders, as well as an allegation that the killings were committed to benefit the defendants’ gang.

“Mr. Rojas is thankful for the jury’s careful deliberation process,” said one of his attorneys, Ricardo Garcia. “The jury was not convinced or sold on the prosecution’s over-arcing conspiracy theory that this was an ongoing gang with one goal in mind that acted from day one to the final day with the same purpose.”

Al Arena, one of the attorneys for Estrada Gonzalez, said the mistrial was the “end of a very long road.”

Deputy District Attorney Dan Owens told the jury during the penalty phase that the defendants “imported their brand of cartel violence and put it on the streets of San Diego for all of us to see.”

Owens said the defendants — members of the Los Palillos or “toothpicks” gang — were “evil men” who committed “evil deeds” out of revenge and greed, including shooting at a Chula Vista police officer and murdering two men on a ranch in San Ysidro, then dissolving their bodies in acid.

In his closing argument, defense attorney Dan Mangarin told jurors the mitigating factors far outweighed the aggravating factors for Rojas Lopez.

“The law is set up to favor life over death,” Mangarin argued.

The “beginning of the end” for Rojas Lopez and Estrada Gonzalez came on June 16, 2007, when they and three fellow gang members were arrested after kidnapping a wealthy businessman and holding him for ransom in a Chula Vista home for eight days, according to prosecutors.

Estrada-Gonzalez was also convicted in the kidnapping and murder of a man whose body was stuffed in the trunk of a car, stuck with toothpicks behind his ear and in his buttocks.

The defendants are already serving life-without-parole prison sentences after being convicted of kidnapping and other crimes.

–City News Service

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