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Suspect's fate in death penalty case is in jury's hands

POSTED: August 29, 2008 5:01 a.m.
SCOTT ROGERS/The Times

District Attorney Lee Darragh gives the state's closing argument Monday afternoon to jury members in the Ignacio "Nacho" Vergara death penalty trial at Hall County Superior Court.

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A jury will ponder today whether Ignacio Vergara is guilty of murder in a drug-related shooting that claimed two lives six years ago on a gravel road in South Hall.

Should jurors find the 26-year-old native of Mexico guilty, they will be asked to sentence him to death.

Closing arguments in Hall County’s first locally prosecuted death penalty case in nine years wrapped up late Monday with Vergara’s attorney stressing that he was not the gunman in the murders of Francisco Saucedo and Alejandro Santana, and the prosecution reiterating that it didn’t matter.

"It does not matter that Vergara did not shoot anybody," District Attorney Lee Darragh said as he borrowed a page from the defense and held up the words printed on paper for the jury to read, just as attorney Raymond George had done in his opening statement. "It does not matter one bit."

Darragh told the jury that Vergara is a party to the crime of murder if he "advises, encourages, hires, counsels or procures another to commit that crime."

The gunman in the March 2002 shooting, Brigido Soto, testified last week that Vergara hatched the plan to rob the drug dealers, gave him the murder weapon, a .45-caliber Colt handgun, ordered him to shoot the men, then took the 2 kilograms of cocaine that were in the men’s car. Soto struck a deal with prosecutors last year that saw him spared the death penalty, agreeing to testify against Vergara in exchange for two consecutive life sentences without parole.

George, the defense attorney, characterized Soto as a cold-blooded killer who in his courtroom testimony seemed proud that he had shot three men to death, including a prior manslaughter case in Texas for which he served two years in prison.

The lawyer said Soto’s claim that Vergara signaled for him to pull the gun out and encouraged him to keep shooting "defies logic, and defies the evidence in this case."

"Soto decided when to pull that gun; Soto decided when to shoot; Soto decided who to beat in the head; Soto decided who was to die," George said. "Brigido Soto — that’s who’s responsible. He was in charge."

Darragh characterized the gunman as a dim-witted "stooge" who didn’t know how to read or write, was new to the area and was easily manipulated by Vergara.

"Soto’s not too bright," Darragh said. "He’s gullible. He’s murderous. But so is Vergara."

Vergara, Darragh contended, was the "brains behind the event."

Attorneys are permitted two hours for closing arguments in death penalty cases, and the prosecutor used nearly every minute, going over dozens of points of evidence for the jury of 12 men and four women, including alternates.

Noting that the youngest juror was 29, Darragh said, "You weren’t born yesterday, ladies and gentlemen. And you didn’t fall off a turnip truck yesterday."

Darragh said the jury should consider whether the defendant "should get up and walk out of here a free man, laughing on his way out of the courthouse, and realizing that what he tried to do with the police in 2002 he succeeded in doing with you — pulling the wool over your eyes."

One issue the jury won’t be asked to consider is whether Vergara is guilty of trafficking in cocaine. Hall County Superior Court Senior Judge John Girardeau granted a defense motion after the close of evidence Monday, issuing a directed verdict of not guilty on the drug charge. Defense attorney Lee Parks successfully argued that no cocaine was entered into evidence and no one testified to seeing what was in the two duct tape-wrapped bricks stolen from the murder scene.

Girardeau will instruct the jury on the law this morning before they are ordered to begin deliberations. A verdict of guilty would trigger the sentencing phase of the trial.



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