A jury on Monday convicted two alleged MS-13 members of a 2017 slaying on a Hempstead street that prosecutors said was linked to the gang’s desire to control the neighborhood.
The Nassau County Court panel found Pedro Rivera, 25, and Carlos Flores, 26, guilty of second-degree murder, first-degree conspiracy and weapon charges in the death of Nelson Rodriguez.
The Nassau District Attorney's Office had alleged Rivera shot Rodriguez, 37, in the head and back as the Hempstead man walked along Front Street on his way home from his auto body shop job on March 20, 2017.
Prosecutors said the shooting happened while six MS-13 members were on the hunt in the area for a rival gangster to kill as Flores drove the group around in a white Honda Accord.
Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas said in an interview after the verdict that it sent a clear message that the streets of Hempstead belong to local residents and that neither they nor law enforcement officials would be intimidated by gangs.
"MS-13 is on the run because of our relentless work," Singas added, saying her office would partner with other law enforcement agencies or even current or former gang members to get justice.
In this case, a 19-year-old from El Salvador who said he was inside the Honda that day turned on his former gang cohorts and became a cooperating witness for the prosecution.
Hector Lazo, 19, told jurors he made a deal to serve 10 years in prison instead of 25 years to life in exchange for his truthful testimony for the government. He pleaded guilty to murder and manslaughter in the case.
Lazo testified that Rivera had a gun when he got out of the Honda that the half-dozen MS-13 members were riding around in before he heard gunshots and then saw Rivera running back to the car.
Rivera then put the gun in his waistband and said he’d taken the victim’s phone so the shooting would look like a robbery, Lazo told jurors.
The witness testified further that 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 — yet another MS-13 rival.
Flores then declared that Rodriguez was going “to disappear,” before later threatening death to anyone who spoke about the slaying, Lazo said.
But Rivera’s attorney, John Healy, and Flores’ attorney, Greg Madey, emphasized that Lazo initially told police that four MS-13 members were in the Accord before testifying that two gang higher-ups also were present.
Lazo said that he left them out initially because he was scared, but the defense portrayed him as a liar.
The defense also pointed to a recording that a Hempstead detective’s confidential informant secretly made during a conversation with one of those alleged MS-13 gang higher-ups, Ramon Martines, as evidence that cast further doubt on their clients’ guilt.
Healy told jurors Martines had admitted to either being the shooter or the driver and said at least one person charged in the case was the wrong person.
Healy also criticized law enforcement officials for not handing over the “exculpatory” recording from the summer of 2017 until the trial was underway.
But prosecutor Jared Rosenblatt said Martines was only taking credit during the recording for his gang’s work and not saying he was the gunman.
While Rosenblatt criticized the work of interpreter who translated the recording from Spanish into English, he also acknowledged the detective erred by not sharing the recording with prosecutors until recently.
Singas said Monday as soon as the detective turned it over, her office gave the recording to the defense as required.
Rosenblatt also told jurors that other evidence — including grainy surveillance video of the shooting — corroborated Lazo’s account.
Healy said Monday he respected the jury's verdict, but would file an appeal for Rivera.
Madey said he'd file an appeal for Flores and he was disappointed the jury convicted his client when he believed the evidence against him came from Lazo, whose "account evolved."
Prosecutors said Rivera and Flores face up to 65 years to life in prison when Acting State Supreme Court Justice Terence Murphy sentences them on Sept. 30.
Members of the jury declined to comment.