The jury of nine men and three women deliberated for more than three hours Wednesday in the sentencing phase of Ignacio Vergara’s death penalty trial before asking to be released from duty for the day at about 7:30 p.m. It was the eighth day of sequestration for the jury, which is staying in an area hotel.
The same jury convicted Vergara of murder Tuesday in the deaths of Alejandro Santana and Francisco Saucedo, two Gwinnett County men allegedly killed for 2 kilograms of cocaine.
According to court testimony, Vergara planned, facilitated and ordered the March 2002 killings on a gravel road near Flowery Branch. Co-defendant Brigido Soto, who earlier agreed to a plea deal of two consecutive sentences of life without parole, admitted to shooting the victims.
District Attorney Lee Darragh told jurors in his sentencing argument that he realized they would take into account that the triggerman did not get a death sentence.
"I’m not a foolish person," Darragh said. "I know that will be given some consideration by you all. (But) I am not discounting the argument for the death penalty in this case. Ignacio Vergara, ladies and gentlemen, according to the evidence in this case, deserves the death penalty."
Soto testified during the trial that Vergara gave him the murder weapon, a .45-caliber Colt handgun, and signaled for him to shoot the two men as they sat in a car on Bragg Road.
"(Vergara) is even more culpable than the one who emptied the gun," Darragh said.
Darragh said the victims may be viewed in a "negative light" due to their involvement in the drug trade, but that nevertheless their lives were "snuffed out."
"They killed no one," Darragh said of the victims. "They brought no gun to the scene."
Darragh emphasized above all that the jury reject a sentence of life with the possibility of parole.
"Do not, under any circumstance, make a decision that would allow the department of pardons and paroles to make the decision one day that allows this defendant to walk free again," Darragh said. "He should never see the light of civilized society again."
The prosecutor told the jury they must find the existence of at least one so-called "aggravating circumstance" in order to impose a sentence of life without parole or death. The aggravating circumstances alleged in Vergara’s case are murder accompanied by an aggravated battery, a murder committed while in the commission of another murder, a murder committed while in the commission of an armed robbery, and that Vergara directed or caused another to commit murder.
"The evidence in this case is that the defendant should get, at the very minimum, at the very minimum, life without the possibility of parole," Darragh said.
Darragh noted that the prosecution would have been unable to secure a sentence of life without parole for Vergara unless it sought the death penalty.
Vergara’s attorney, Lee Parks, implored the jury to show his client mercy.
"Without mercy, there is no justice," Parks said.
Parks said a sentence of life with the chance of parole, however remote, would give Vergara a glimmer of hope for redemption.
"Folks, in just a few minutes, you’re literally going to have Ignacio Vergara’s life in your hands," Parks said. "Your decision will determine whether he lives or dies. Your decision will determine whether he has that hope of regaining redemption or if he lives without that hope."
"Do not crush Mr. Vergara’s life out," Parks said. "Do not give him the death penalty."
Earlier, Vergara’s mother tearfully pleaded with the jury to spare his life.
"Please don’t kill him," Maria Lucia Mendez said through an interpreter. "He is my only son. Please forgive him."
Mendez sobbed frequently as she went through more than 30 family photographs, including several pictures of the defendant as a child in his native Mexico.
"That’s my Nachito," she said.
When Parks asked her if she had anything to say to the jury, Mendez acknowledged her son’s guilt.
"I know that he needs to be in jail for life," she said. "But please, please don’t kill him. I ask you in the most sincere way. Forgive him."
Darragh called two of Saucedo’s loved ones to testify about the impact his murder had on their lives.
Suzanne Johnson, the mother of Saucedo’s son Junior, said the boy was 18 months old "when his father was taken from him."
"Every day I wake up and hope this is a dream and hope he would walk through the door and pick up his son," Johnson tearfully read from a prepared statement. "It is hard to explain to your son why his father cannot come to his soccer game and watch him kick a goal or see him on his first day of school."
Saucedo’s cousin, Jose Garcia, testified through an interpreter that the men who killed Saucedo "shattered all of his dreams, leaving a widow and a son without a father."
The trial has drawn a large number of spectators as it nears the end. About 30 family members and friends of both Vergara and the victims waited in the courthouse halls for a verdict late Wednesday. A representative of the Mexican consulate was also on hand to observe.
Deliberations resume at 9 a.m. this morning.