On Friday, May 14, a jury found Elijah Martinez guilty of manslaughter in the death of Wayli Alvarado-Gonzalez in the parking lot of a Denver 7-Eleven on New Year's Day 2020; Martinez was eighteen at the time, while Alvarado-Gonzales was fifteen. But according to attorney Jason Flores-Williams, who represented Martinez, the decision was "a massive victory" that has the potential to reverberate well beyond a single Colorado courtroom.
Why? Martinez was originally charged with first-degree murder, and prosecutors tried to paint him as a lethal gang member — a tactic commonly used against young men of color, and one Flores-Williams sees as decidedly racist.
"They tried to make Elijah look like a monster so they could put this kid away for the rest of his life," Flores-Williams says. "That's what first-degree murder does: life without parole."
To counter that narrative, Flores-Williams argued that Martinez had acted in self-defense and was influenced by traumas in his life. As Flores-Williams told us last August, Martinez had been an outstanding point guard for a basketball team that played at the Athmar Recreation Center, "and when he was in eighth and ninth grade, he was able to walk to the rec center. But because of the increase in violence and gang activity, he had to be driven there for the past year or two. Before a baseball game, he went to a Shell station, where he was robbed at gunpoint, stripped of his clothes, and forced to run home in his boxers. And when he went to an eighteenth-birthday party for a friend, he had to leave because gang members showed up — and one of his friends was beaten to a pulp on a street corner."
Incidents like these have been used for decades as mitigating factors on behalf of white defendants. Famous examples include Bernard Goetz, who was acquitted of attempted murder after gunning down four threatening passengers on a New York City subway back in 1984; George Zimmerman, cleared in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012; and Patricia and Mark McCloskey, lauded at the 2020 Republican National Convention for pointing guns at Black Lives Matter protesters in St. Louis earlier that year. But such tactics have been less successful when used in relation to people of color because, as Flores-Williams suggests, "it's only whites and the dominant culture who are afforded an inner life."
Meanwhile, prosecutors went out of their way to play the gang card against Martinez. Flores-Williams contends that "this incident had nothing to do with gangs whatsoever, but two days of the trial were spent on gangs. We had to fight it off during the entire trial. They did everything they could to paint Elijah as a gangbanger, when he was just a kid."
Not that Flores-Williams was caught off-guard by this approach. He countered gang experts who testified on behalf of the prosecution with one of his own, as a way of portraying Martinez as a person rather than allowing him to be cast as a stereotypically animalistic killer. "There needs to be a review of the way district attorneys use so-called gang evidence when prosecuting young people of color," the attorney maintains. "It has run rampant for far too long, devastating communities with brutally unjust prison sentences and loss of life to the American prison industrial complex. When we talk today about systemic racism in the criminal justice system, this is a premium example."
When it came time for the jury to pass judgment, however, the worst-case scenario for the now-twenty-year-old Martinez was avoided.
"To hear not guilty as to first-degree murder, and then not guilty as to second-degree murder means that Elijah is not going to be one more lost person," Flores-Williams says. "He's not going to spend the rest of his life in prison, as the DA would have liked to have seen. His sentencing is still out, but the max on manslaughter is six years, and he's already served one — and he has no criminal history to speak of. And if he gets four years, he could very well be home by the time he's 23."
Flores-Williams doesn't want to minimize the suffering of Alvarado-Gonzalez's friends, family and loved ones. "No one is celebrating," he says. "This is sad. But I want to credit these fellow citizens for seeing Elijah's humanity — seeing a kid they could have easily written off from a world they don't understand. They were insistent on bringing a just outcome to a system that doesn't always provide just outcomes. They didn't pile injustice on top of more injustice and these cycles that are driven by fear. The jury had the courage to look past fear — to look at the actual events. And that can maybe stop the cycle."
In Flores-Williams's view, "Gang evidence is normalized racism. It's a way of first convicting young Blacks and Browns, then controlling them through parole and gang databases where more than 90 percent of the people on these databases are people of color. Once you're labeled as a gang member, then you're branded for the rest of your life. The sickest part is that this society creates these dangerous environments that traumatize young people and leaves them in a world where every day is a struggle to survive. Then, when they inevitably break the law, we provide them nothing but barbed wire, concrete and cages. We take people who are already traumatized and traumatize them further through prison. We consign them to a nightmare of incarceration, disenfranchisement and stigmatization that affects the entire community."
He adds: "Anyone who has spent any time in the criminal justice system in this country knows one thing, and it is time that we start saying that it serves one great purpose in America: to keep Blacks and Browns as the permanent underclass, permanently knocked down. Then, whenever people try to get up, they call you a monster, a dangerous gang member, so that all your rights and dignity go out the window and you are left with nothing but a lockdown of the soul. That's why it was so important here to get Elijah acquitted of the main charges. I couldn't watch one more life be lost to the machine."
Now, Martinez's future is "up to him," Flores-Williams says. "The ball is in his court. If he wants to, he can still have a full life — and that's what I wanted for him."
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.