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SIX ACQUITTED IN SLAYING FIVE TRIED EARLIER WERE SENTENCED TO LIFE.

Byline: Amy Raisin Darvish Staff Writer

LOS ANGELES - Six suspected gang members were acquitted Thursday of killing a Canyon Country man, a decision that shocked the families of five others sentenced to life in prison last summer for the same mob slaying.

The six, among 18 charged in the case, walked out of the Los Angeles Superior Court free men while the rest remain behind bars.

The case involved the January 2002 stabbing death of 19-year-old Byron Benito, who police said was attacked in retaliation for the killing of a gang member whose body was found the day before in a gully near Sierra Highway. Benito was not in a gang, police said.

Two minors faced trial in Juvenile Court and five others pleaded guilty, accepting prison terms of 15 years to life.

Because there were so many defendants, the District Attorney's Office opted to handle the remaining 11 - all charged with first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder - in two separate trials, the first of which was held last summer.

Jurors in that case, as in the second trial, were instructed to judge each of the five defendants individually. Each had his or her own attorney and all were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The second trial, which began last month, produced a drastically different verdict and the six men who faced the same fate of life in prison - Jose Rodriguez, Robert Moreno and Tony Villasenor, all 22; Adam Rodriguez, 24; Esteban Alonso, 21; and 20-year-old Samuel Herr - instead walked out of the downtown Superior Court as free men.

Attorney Ezekiel Perlo, who represented Alonso, said the evidence was ``insufficient,'' according to City News Service.

Moreno's lawyer, James Blatt, said the evidence at trial showed that his client was not at the scene or at the apartment where prosecutors said Byron Benito's slaying was planned.

``My client sat in jail for the last two years,'' Blatt said. ``I think the prosecution made the mistake of painting with too broad of a brush. They didn't have the evidence on Moreno and the jury could see that. There were significant holes in the prosecution's case.''

Defendant Herr was Benito's close friend, according to the victim's mother, who tearfully testified in the first trial. Prosecutors said it was Herr who lured an unsuspecting Benito to his death in a dark parking lot Jan. 15, 2002.

Earl Henson, the father of Katherine Henson, 23 - the only female defendant and one of the five sentenced last summer to life in prison - was shocked when he learned of Thursday's verdict.

``I'm just flabbergasted. We understood that (the defendants) were all equally in this together,'' Henson said in a phone interview from his Granada Hills home. ``This verdict just tells me that the whole justice system is just screwed up. You can't get a fair trial.''

While an appeal already has been filed in his daughter's case, Henson said he will ask whether the latest verdict has any bearing on his daughter's sentence.

Terrence Bennett, who represented Adam Rodriguez in the second trial, cited two reasons for the difference in the outcome of the trials including the fact that the defense attorneys in the second trial, using transcripts from the first trial, benefited from hindsight, he said.

The major difference, however, was the absence of eyewitness testimony in the second trial - one of the juvenile defendants testified for the prosecution in the first trial, but not in the second.

``In the absence of that testimony, it became a totally circumstantial case,'' Bennett said. ``No question in my mind, the case came down to that.''

Prosecutors could not be reached for comment Thursday to explain why the juvenile did not testify in the second trial.

Amy Raisin Darvish, (661) 257-5254

amy.raisin(at)dailynews.com
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 7, 2004
Words:636
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