Barbara Davidson-Pool/Getty Images
Pedro Espinoza (L) reacts after the jury announced their verdict on May 9, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. Espinoza was found guilty of first-degree murder for the fatal shooting of high-school football player Jamiel Shaw Jr., in 2008, before a death sentence was recommended by a jury in the penalty phase.
Deputy LA County District Attorney Bobby Grace says it takes a lot to shock the people of Los Angeles.
“If it’s not something that’s happened in the Los Angeles area, then it’s probably something that people have seen on TV or in the movies," Grace says.
But Jamiel Shaw Jr.’s murder was different. The 17-year-old was a good kid, a standout football player who was just getting back from hanging out at the mall when Pedro Espinoza walked up and shot him twice. Prosecutors said Espinoza was trying to impress fellow his peers and advance his status in the 18th Street gang.
Espinoza is scheduled to appear in court Friday for sentencing. A jury convicted him of first-degree murder in May and recommended the death penalty. Even as the case comes to a close, observers say it haunts them.
“It made everybody stop and think, you know, what can happen to my child?," Grace says. Then, the case became a perfect storm of sorts, he says. As more information came out, it turned out Espinoza was an undocumented immigrant, brought to the U.S. at as a toddler. And Espinoza had been released from jail just the day before the murder, after a conviction that could have made him eligible for deportation.
The murder took on a new dimension at that point. Shaw’s parents took the issue toLA City Hall, asking for a law change that would allow LAPD officers to arrest undocumented immigrants who are gang members.
That the measure didn’t get far still disturbs Jamiel Shaw Sr., who says he doesn't understand why talking about "illegal aliens" committing crimes has to be taboo.
"That's the hard thing, this could have been prevented," Shaw says.
Deputy DA Bobby Grace says there's a balance here that law enforcement agencies will continue to grapple with.
"This region draws a lot of people from a lot of different areas, looking for a better life," Grace says. "The federal government has not come up with a workable plan on how to bring people into this country, either for work permits or temporary status. In the meantime, local law enforcement authorities, they do have to strike a balance, making sure that undocumented people who commit violent crimes get deported, but also making sure that people who have committed no crimes don't feel afraid to come forward to report crimes that are happening in their communities."
In LA the approach differs from agency to agency. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck recently proposed a new department policy that would refuse to honor immigration holds on people arrested for low-level crimes, while still detaining those accused of violent crimes. Meanwhile, the LA County Sheriff's Department is being sued for allegedly holding people longer than their sentences so federal immigration authorities can check their statuses.
For Jamiel Shaw Sr., pushing for the law named after his son and namesake continues to be a priority, even as it's lost momentum since it failed to make the 2009 ballot.
"All we can do is the best we can do," he says. "And the best we can do is the death penalty."
Espinoza’s attorney couldn’t be reached for comment. In court, he’s said that Espinoza has endured mental health problems and a troubled childhood.
Shaw says he’s looking forward to the end of the court case, even as he doesn't expect that will deliver peace of mind. He says an event like this can change your DNA.
"It’s like a noise," he says. "You can tell that you’re thinking differently. Cause you’re just visualizing this boy, dead. And coroner. And caskets. We’re not designed as humans, to lose our kids like that."
Maybe the worst impact, Shaw says, has been on his younger son, whom he barely allows to walk down the street to buy milk.
"I tell him, remember Jas?" Shaw says, using Jamiel Jr.'s nickname. "Bad things can happen to you even if you've done nothing wrong."