Hall County jurors could face a life or death decision today.
After finding Ignacio "Nacho" Vergara guilty of murder Tuesday in the March 2002 shooting deaths of two men in a cocaine deal, the same jury of 12 men and four women, including alternates, will be asked to consider his punishment. Their choices: life with the possibility of parole, life without parole or death by lethal injection.
The jury returned with its verdict after almost four hours of deliberations. Vergara was convicted of four counts of murder — two counts each for victims Alejandro Santana and Francisco Saucedo — as well as aggravated assault, aggravated battery and armed robbery. He was acquitted of a theft by receiving charge. Girardeau earlier found him not guilty of trafficking in cocaine in a directed verdict.
Vergara showed little reaction to the jury’s verdict. A member of his family wept behind him in the courtroom gallery.
District Attorney Lee Darragh and defense attorney Lee Parks both said afterward that they could not comment about the case outside of court until the conclusion of the trial.
A former girlfriend of one of the victims also declined to comment on the verdict.
According to court testimony, Vergara was not the one who shot Santana and Saucedo as they sat in a car on Bragg Road near Flowery Branch. Vergara’s friend, Brigido Soto, admitted shooting the victims but said he did so at Vergara’s direction. Vergara planned the killings and supplied the murder weapon, a .45-caliber Colt handgun, in order to steal 2 kilograms of cocaine from the men, Soto testified.
Soto negotiated a guilty plea to murder in which he will receive two consecutive life sentences without parole.
The jury’s verdict in the guilt-innocence phase came after five days of testimony. The trial, Hall County’s first locally prosecuted death penalty trial in nine years, began with jury selection more than two weeks ago.
Jurors have been sequestered in an area hotel since Aug. 20.
Hall County Senior Superior Court Judge John Girardeau sent the trial into the sentencing phase immediately after the verdict was rendered.
The trial had more than its share of drama Tuesday, from the jury’s verdict to an unexpected courtroom evacuation.
Assistant District Attorney Alison Toller was five minutes into questioning her first witness, a South Carolina Highway Patrol trooper, when Girardeau, after being advised by sheriff’s officials, evacuated the courtroom to the courthouse basement for a severe weather warning. An all-clear was given 30 minutes later and testimony resumed.
Before breaking for the day, jurors heard from two South Carolina state troopers who testified that Vergara was caught in 2000 in a car with 30 pounds of marijuana.
The prosecution indicated in court Tuesday that at least one person who knew the victims was expected to testify during the sentencing phase. It was not known if the defense, which did not call any witnesses in the guilt-innocence phase, would present any evidence in mitigation.
Testimony resumes this morning. Jurors could deliberate Vergara’s sentence later today.