Reputed OC Mexican Mafia head cleared of Fullerton murder due to change in law

A 1994 murder conviction against the reputed head of the Orange County faction of the Mexican Mafia was vacated this week thanks to a change in state law, marking a legal victory for an accused gang leader who is still facing a high-profile federal racketeering case tied to his alleged leadership of the powerful, prison-based organization.

Nearly three decades ago, a fatal stabbing occurred during a brawl after a pickup basketball game in Fullerton, ignited by someone making a disrespectful comment about someone else’s mother. The stabbing resulted in Johnny Martinez being sentenced to 24 years to life in state prison, despite never having been accused of carrying out the actual killing of 18-year-old Ricky Michaels.

At the time, prosecutors were able to argue that the slaying was a “natural and probable consequence” of the brawl, and that Martinez and others who took part could face the same charges as the actual killer.

Lawmakers have since raised the bar for co-defendants to be charged with murder, requiring they be aware of the killer’s intent or that there be some other evidence of their direct involvement in the actual slaying.

The killer, Juan Villanueva, has since accepted sole responsibility during his own parole hearings. Martinez’s attorney has argued that Martinez was unaware that Villanueva had a knife and contended that Martinez was standing off to the side of the brawl next to another man with his back turned when the stabbing took place.

Prosecutors have countered that Martinez was actually holding that other man at bay and was therefore involved with the brawl. But, according to court records, Orange County Superior Court Judge Sheila Hanson ruled this week that there isn’t enough evidence to find Martinez guilty of murder under current state law. The judge re-sentenced Martinez to 18 months in jail, but due to the time he has already served, she deemed his sentence complete, court records show.

That doesn’t mean that Martinez is being set free.

Federal and state prosecutors allege that during his time behind bars, Martinez rose to the top ranks of the Mexican Mafia, particularly following the death of longtime Santa Ana gang chieftain Peter Ojeda, who for decades led the Orange County faction of the prison gang. Martinez — who allegedly goes by the gang moniker “crow” — has been accused by prosecutors of ordering a wave of local violence, so he could take power in the void left by Ojeda’s death.

Comprised of senior members of Latino street gangs, the Mexican Mafia exerts widespread control over gang activity across Southern California by “taxing” those who deal drugs in gang-controlled territories and trafficking narcotics in and out of prisons and jails. Using smuggled phones, coded written communications or visiting female associates known as “secretaries,” imprisoned Mexican Mafia leaders can issue edicts to gang members on the streets. Those who ignore the Mexican Mafia’s rules or orders are often targeted for beatings or death.

Last year, Martinez and other alleged Mexican Mafia associates were named in a federal indictment alleging that they were involved in murders, attempted murders and a variety of drug and gun-related crimes. Martinez is awaiting trial in that federal case, and after his release from Orange County Sheriff’s custody was ordered to be turned over to federal marshals.

Click here to read the full article in the OC Register

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