Nevada Supreme Court Asked to Reconsider Decision on Casino Shootout Convict
A case is involving a 2011 casino shootout is going before the Nevada Supreme Court. The district attorney in Washoe County is asking the Supreme Court to reconsider its earlier decision which overturned Ernesto Gonzales’s conviction. Ernesto Gonzales is a former president of a chapter of Vegaos, a biker gang involved in the shootout. Gonzales was sentenced in 2013 to life in prison for his role in the incident.
Ernesto Gonzales was not exonerated. Instead, the Nevada Supreme Court ordered a new trial in the case. The court decided to do so based on fault jury instructions made by a Nevada district judge in the original trial.
The Homicidie of Jeffrey Pettigrew
The jury in the original trial ruled that Ernesto Gonzales was guilty of murder in the homicide of Jeffrey “Jethro” Pettigrew, a 51-year old president of the San Jose chapter of the Hells Angels. Word is still unclear on whether the Nevada Supreme Court is affirming the earlier decision to send the case to a Reno court, or whether it wants to a grant a rehearing of the case itself.
Prosecutors contend that the shooting of Pettigrew was an “orchestrated hit”.
Vargo and the Hells Angels have a long running feud in California, stemming from rivalry over control of the gun trade.
Lawyers for Gonzales contend that the biker was trying to protect a friend. Ernesto Gonzales, a 57-year old who was living in San Francisco at the time, said he was trying to protect his friend, Robert Wiggins. At the time of the shooting, several members of the Hells Angels were kicking Wiggins in the head. Robert Wiggins was prone on the ground at the time.
District Attorney Cites Casino Video
District Attorney Chris Hicks says the justices did not place enough weight on surveillance video recorded by John Ascuaga’s Nugget Casino Resort. Because the fight took place inside the casino, plenty of surveillance video was available, so authorities could see the actions of gang members leading up to the fight.
Chris Hicks says the video shows the Ernesto Gonzales was instructing members of Vargo “to form a gauntlet” in the moments leading up to the brawl. The fight took place near Trader Dick’s Bar around 11:30 pm one Friday night inside the casino in Sparks, which is a city of 96,000 adjacent to Reno, Nevada.
Eventually, Pettigrew was slain in the fight, while two members of the Vagos motorcycle club — Leonard Ramirez and Diego Garcia — were injured in the fight. Cesar Villagrana, a member of Hells Angels, was arrested for possession of a stolen firearm and assult with a deadly weapon at the time. Police knew Villagrana had not fired the shots at the time, but his wielding a gun shows that the Hells Angels also were carrying firearms in the incident.
Defendant’s Lawyer Speaks
Gonzales’s lawyer, Richard Cornell, contend that the DA’s filing before the Nevada Supreme Court is a delaying tactic. They point out that the Nevada Supreme Court “very rarely reverses judgments of conviction in high-profile murder cases.”
Richard Cornell said that the casino video reinforces his client’s story. Cornell said, “The video in this case indeed corroborates the fact of a homicide. But homicide committed in defense of others is a lawful homicide.”
What “Defense of Others” Means
The case centers on whether “defense of others” is justified in this case, and whether it turns the case into a justifiable homicide. Richard Cornell says someone defending another person is justified in taking violent actions.
He also reminded reporters that “self-defense” and “defense of others” are two very different concepts with much different burdens of proofs. Where a person committing self-defense must feel their own life is in danger, someone defending others only needs to feel the other person’s life is in danger.
Richard Cornell’s Argument
Cornell said that Ernesto Gonzales, “had the duty to stop Pettigrew in ‘mid-stomp.’ Ask him whether he so happened to be the primary initial aggressor in the fight; and when he responded in the negative — even if lying — allow Pettigrew then to stomp Wiggins to death.”
If a new trial is ordered, it is not likely to be an easy case for jurors, or prosecutors. Richard Cornell’s arguments are powerful, and yet it is hard to understand or sympathize with the lifestyle of a violent biker member. Ernesto Gonzales’s violent lifestyle and ties to a criminal organization make it harder to convince a jury his intentions were purely defensive in nature.
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