At 3 p.m. today, July 2, Elijah Martinez is scheduled to be sentenced for 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.
Martinez was originally accused of first-degree murder, but in May a Denver jury instead found him guilty of manslaughter. Afterward, attorney Jason Flores-Williams, who represents Martinez, praised the decision even as he castigated the choice of prosecutors to argue that the killing may have been gang-related.
"This incident had nothing to do with gangs whatsoever, but two days of the trial were spent on gangs," Flores-Williams said after the verdict. "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.
"There needs to be a review of the way district attorneys use so-called gang evidence when prosecuting young people of color," he continued. "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."
Denver District Attorney Beth McCann, whose office prosecuted Martinez, takes umbrage at Flores-Williams's remarks. She maintains that her staffers had legitimate reasons for bringing up the topic of gangs, and notes that the judge in the case ruled that doing so was justified. Moreover, she denies that her office engages in prejudicial tactics against defendants of color, citing her efforts to eliminate racial disparities in prosecutions.
According to McCann, the Martinez case "was never about race from the prosecution side. It was really about seeking justice for a fifteen-year-old boy who really should be alive today, and who lost his life that night. When we are prosecuting cases, we do not prosecute people based on their race or gang affiliation. We prosecute based on what the facts are, what the evidence is, and what we believe we can show a jury that will convince them to find someone guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."
In tackling the Martinez matter, McCann continues, "We went about prosecuting it as we would any case. The police department investigated, and they spoke with all of the witnesses who were willing to speak, and looked at the physical evidence that was available. And in this particular case, there was surveillance video and there were statements from those involved that Mr. Martinez was, as witnesses put it, antagonizing and taunting the victim, and he waved a purple bandana to taunt the victim. From what the witnesses told the detectives, the color purple has been used by a particular gang — so our purpose of using the purple bandana in court was to show the intent of the defendant."
McCann stresses, "Before we used that kind of evidence, we asked the judge's permission, and the court ruled in a very thoughtful opinion that after careful consideration of all the evidence, its probative value was not outweighed by any potential for prejudice. The court found that the provocative nature of the gesture was probative of the defendant's intent and might also show why the defendant might intervene on behalf of a companion who'd been involved in a fistfight. And also, the defendant recanted some of his prior testimony, and the judge felt the possibility of gang retaliation could be an explanation for why he changed his story, and that ultimately would be helpful for the jury. That's really the question: Would this help the jury in making a decision about the case? And we would not have introduced this kind of testimony without a ruling by the court if it was objected to by the defense, which in this case it clearly was."
As for whether hyping up gang affiliations against young defendants of color is a widespread tactic, McCann responds: "I don't know the details of what other offices do. But in my office, the focus we have right now is on working with young people to help them make better choices and not be involved in the criminal justice system. We try to identify young people, and particularly people under eighteen, who are beginning to get involved in the system and try to help support them before they get too involved. And we also just released a study of cases in my office to see if we could identify any kind of pattern that would involve ethnicity and race."
The report, titled "Racial Disparities in Prosecutorial Outcomes," was issued in April. McCann acknowledges that it shows "a disproportionate representation of people of color in the system, and that troubles me greatly. It's something I've been interested in since I took office — to make sure we're not over-prosecuting people of color. We're hoping that we can stop the cycle...and in this case, we have a family that lost a fifteen-year-old boy for, really, no good reason. He was a young immigrant from Guatemala, and the fact that he would lose his life at age fifteen in such an unnecessary way is very distressing. So we would like to be part of the solution. Part of that involves prosecuting criminal behavior, but it also involves working with the community on ways that could prevent criminal behavior. Believe me, I'd like nothing more than to put myself out of business, but that doesn't seem to be happening."
Because Martinez was found guilty of manslaughter rather than murder, he may still be in his early twenties when he's released from prison. As a result, Flores-Williams told us in May, Martinez's future "is up to him. 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."
And on this, McCann concurs. "I agree that the future is up to Mr. Martinez," she says. "I think he has been given an opportunity to learn and move on from this horrible, horrible segment of his life. He's going to carry with him the rest of his life the fact that he killed someone, but I do wish him the best. I hope he can become a productive member of society."
Click to read the Elijah Martinez arrest affidavit, the order related to gang affiliation and the "Racial Disparities in Prosecutorial Outcomes" report.
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