A Nassau judge Tuesday sentenced two alleged MS-13 members to 50 years to life in prison for the “coldhearted assassination” of a Hempstead auto body shop worker who was walking home from his job when gang members saw him and spontaneously targeted him for death.
Acting State Supreme Court Justice Terence Murphy said the punishments for Pedro Rivera and Carlos Flores were meant to be a message of deterrence for the MS-13 gang and others “who believe that the gang life is the right life."
Murphy told Flores: “What I saw during the trial … was a wanton, callous, coldhearted assassination of a citizen of our community.” He added: "In America, we don’t take the law into our own hands.”
Prosecutors said the 26-year-old immigrant from El Salvador ordered the deadly shooting of Nelson Rodriguez on March 20, 2017.
The judge later told Rivera, a 25-year-old from El Salvador whom prosecutors identified as the triggerman: “It’s as if you acted without a conscience, without a soul, to strike someone down in daylight, on a public street, with the community walking to and fro, traffic going through its daily course.”
A jury in August found both defendants guilty of second-degree murder, first-degree conspiracy and weapon charges.
"It's a very severe sentence, as it should be," Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas said in an interview later Tuesday. "... We can't tolerate that kind of violence on our streets by MS-13 ... We're sending a very strong message that they will not be able to operate here in Nassau County without severe ramifications."
Prosecutors had alleged during the trial that Rivera shot Rodriguez, 37, in the head and back as the Hempstead man walked along Front Street – a killing that jurors watched unfold on grainy surveillance video.
Rodriguez "was an unfortunate, tragic victim in this case, just minding his own business, trying to get home from work," Singas added Tuesday of the Hempstead man — an immigrant himself.
Prosecutors said the attack happened while six MS-13 members were on the hunt for a rival gang member to kill, circling the area in white Honda Accord, with Flores at the wheel.
The prosecution’s star witness in the case, Hector Lazo, testified he was a former gang cohort of the defendants and had been in the Honda that day.
The 19-year-old said MS-13 had been looking for a member of the 14th Street Gang to kill as payback for the beating of one of their own members days earlier, but instead came upon Rodriguez and believed he was part of the 18th Street Gang — another rival of MS-13.
Flores then declared Rodriguez was going “to disappear” before Rivera got out of the Honda with a gun, gunshots rang out and Rivera then ran back to the car, according to the cooperating witness.
Lazo told jurors he made a deal to serve 10 years in prison rather than 25 years to life in exchange for his truthful testimony.
But Flores’ attorney, Greg Madey, and Rivera’s attorney, John Healy, portrayed Lazo as a liar who had changed his account of how many MS-13 members were in the Honda that day — first stating four, and later six.
Lazo said he initially didn’t say that two people he identified as gang higher-ups were in the car out of fear.
During the trial, the defense also pointed to a recording that a Hempstead detective’s confidential informant secretly made during a conversation with one of those alleged gang higher-ups as evidence that cast further doubt on their clients’ guilt.
Healy said that alleged gangster had admitted to being either the shooter or the driver and said that at least one person charged in the killing was the wrong person. He also criticized law enforcement officials for not disclosing what he called “exculpatory” evidence until the trial was underway.
But prosecutor Jared Rosenblatt had claimed the alleged MS-13 higher-up on the recording was only taking credit for his criminal syndicate’s work. He conceded the detective had erred by not sharing the recording with prosecutors in a timely manner.
Singas said in an interview after the verdict that her office had disclosed the recording to the defense, as required, as soon as the detective turned it over.
Rosenblatt told the judge Tuesday that the defendants, part of a local MS-13 clique, deserved “no mercy” from the court and had "wanted the community to know they were Hempstead Locos Salvatrucha."
MS-13, Rosenblatt added, “wanted to send a message of power and control to anyone in Hempstead who would take notice.”
Healy declined to comment after court Tuesday. Madey said he was "still disappointed in the verdict," but there was "no surprise in the sentence."
The judge Tuesday also contrasted the “callous” actions of the defendants with those of other immigrants.
“There are a thousand success stories of young men in your same situation who have done good, who have overcome hurdles and obstacles and bad breaks. They don’t get reported in the newspaper. But you will,” he said while sentencing Rivera. “And you’ll be reported as the killer that you are.”