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In the case of four teens suspected of driving to the home of a Cherokee Trail High School student in an incident that ended with the student's death, two of the defendants received the chance for …
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In the case of four teens suspected of driving to the home of a Cherokee Trail High School student in an incident that ended with the student's death, two of the defendants received the chance for more-lenient sentences in juvenile court.
The two remaining defendants in adult court — both Black males — are at the mercy of adult prosecution, facing the possibility of 40 years to life in prison, defense attorney Dan McGarvey said during a Jan. 20 court hearing that largely centered on the race of the defendants.
One of the remaining defendants, Demarea Deshawn Mitchell, 18, pleaded not guilty on Aug. 31 to first-degree felony murder, aggravated robbery, attempted aggravated robbery and conspiracy to commit aggravated robbery, according to the 18th Judicial District Attorney's Office.
A count of first-degree felony murder can be charged against anyone in a group that is allegedly involved in a serious crime in which a death occurs. The charge applies even if a particular member of the group is not believed to have directly caused the death.
Mitchell is one of the four suspected of driving to the home of Lloyd Alvin Chavez IV, 18, in east Centennial during what was planned as a robbery of vaping products Chavez sold, according to arrest affidavits. Chavez was fatally shot during the May 2019 incident.
Mitchell's defense attorney took issue with the court granting the chance of lighter sentences to the two suspects who are not Black but denying it to the two Black defendants, arguing the difference amounted to discrimination.
Those who received the chance at lighter sentences were Dominic Jarrod Stager and Juliana Alexis Serrano.
“At every stage of the criminal justice system, Black folks, particularly Black men and Black boys are treated disparately, and there is no exception in the 18th Judicial District,” McGarvey said, referencing the area that includes Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties.
The judicial district has seen a disparity in how often Black youths are prosecuted as adults compared to white youths, accounting for both races' representation in the local population, McGarvey argued.
McGarvey also referenced a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court case in which the court spoke of “'unceasing efforts' to eradicate racial prejudice from our criminal justice system,” but he noted that a 2017 U.S. Supreme Court case still found the court decades later stating that the nation “must continue to make strides to overcome race-based discrimination.”
Judge Ben Leutwyler for the Arapahoe County District Court responded that the only way in which the defendants in this case are “similarly situated” — or could expect to be treated similarly — is that they were all juveniles charged in the case. The prosecution argues the cases have been resolved differently because the teens' level of involvement varied.
“Do I stop simply because they were all four charged? Or do I consider individual facts?” Leutwyler said during the hearing.
The other remaining defendant, 19-year-old Kenneth Alfonso Gallegos, has pleaded not guilty to charges of first-degree felony murder, aggravated robbery and conspiracy to commit aggravated robbery. The other suspects had been charged with the same crimes as Gallegos, according to the DA's office.
Christopher Gallo, a prosecutor for the DA's office, argued that the defense attorneys “conflate 'similarly situated' with 'similarly charged.'” And if the two concepts were the same, any defendants with similar charges in any case would need to receive similar outcomes despite differences in their level of involvement, Gallo argued.
Mitchell was treated differently “because he pulled the trigger,” Gallo said.
As the case has unfolded, evidence has shown some uncertainty as to who shot Chavez.
Serrano eventually told authorities she didn't actually see the gun in anyone's hands but described it as a “smaller gun” and saw a laser shining on Chavez around the time he was shot, according to an arrest affidavit.
“There's testimony that Mr. Mitchell actually pointed the gun at Mr. Chavez prior to any kind of wrestling,” Leutwyler said during a Feb. 18 hearing last year. He added: “There is conflicting evidence as to who shot Mr. Chavez.”
McGarvey said at the Jan. 20 hearing: “Let's talk about the fact that there's a white man who brings a loaded gun,” a reference to Stager. McGarvey also pointed to Serrano helping plan the potential robbery by messaging Chavez about meeting.
“Talk about culpability; how can we ignore that?” McGarvey said.
Gallo acknowledged that “it is true that discrimination exists across all forms of government, and it is true that implicit bias exists in all forms of government.” But he said for the defense's argument about discrimination to succeed, attorneys must show that Gallo acted with a discriminatory intent, and Gallo argued that that was far from true.
The judge, who appeared unconvinced by the defense's arguments, told the court on Jan. 20 he would issue written decisions regarding the defense's motions, or arguments, including on the discrimination claim, possibly within the following two weeks.
Amid concerns about the coronavirus, the court moved Mitchell's trial date. Rather than starting Feb. 16, the trial now may begin July 13. Gallegos' trial could start April 6.
The other two suspects — Stager, who is 18 or 19 based on sheriff's and court records, and 18-year-old Serrano — both had their criminal cases dismissed and were transferred to juvenile court.
Leutwyler on July 14 denied the request to transfer Mitchell's case to juvenile court. The court also denied a motion to have Gallegos' case transferred to juvenile court.
At the time of the incident, Serrano and Stager were students at Cherokee Trail, and Gallegos was a Grandview High School student who had recently transferred from Cherokee Trail. Mitchell was identified in photos provided by a Cherokee Trail school resource officer.
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