Originally created 12/16/05

30-year term is given in drive-by



ATHENS, Ga. - An Athens man was sentenced Thursday to 30 years in prison for his role in a 2004 drive-by shooting that injured three people outside an apartment complex where residents were celebrating a girl's 15th birthday.

About four hours of deliberations had been all a Clarke County Superior Court jury needed to render a guilty verdict in the first Clarke County prosecution under a 1998 anti-gang law.

Prosecutors say the conviction of Miguel Hidalgo-Lopez in a 2004 gang-related shooting should send a message to Athens gang members.

"This won't be tolerated. Period," Chief Deputy Assistant District Attorney Matt Karzen said. "You do this kind of thing, and you will be taken out."

MR. HIDALGO-LOPEZ, who showed little emotion at the verdict, was the first person in Clarke County to be prosecuted under the Georgia Street Gangs Act of 1998.

He was convicted of eight counts of aggravated assault, two counts of aggravated battery, one count of simple battery and violating the state's anti-gang law.

"I disagree with the verdict," defense attorney Stan Durden said after walking out of the courtroom. "But, they're (the jury) the one who makes the decision, not me."

Gabriela Martinez, Mr. Hidalgo-Lopez's wife, left the courtroom as a Clarke County sheriff's deputy began shackling Mr. Hidalgo-Lopez before transporting him to jail.

He and five other alleged Los Primos members are accused of targeting rival 18th Street gang members outside an east Athens apartment the night of Jan. 30, 2004.

One gang member and two bystanders were wounded in the shooting in which police said as many as 50 shots were fired from a caravan of three vehicles.

Prosecutors spent five-and-a-half days presenting evidence that Mr. Hidalgo-Lopez was a member of the Los Primos/Sur 13 gang that participated in a retaliatory drive-by shooting against members of the 18th Street gang.

Some witnesses placed Mr. Hidalgo-Lopez at the scene of the shooting, and prosecutors used pictures of Mr. Hidalgo-Lopez flashing what witnesses identified as gang hand signs to help connect him to Los Primos/Sur 13.

THE SHOOTING ALLEGEDLY culminated a dispute between the two Mexican gangs that began six days earlier, when members of the rival groups were involved in a fight at a West Broad Street restaurant where a quincenera - the marking of a Hispanic girl's 15th birthday, or coming of age - was being celebrated.

In response, a pair of witnesses testifying on behalf of Mr. Hidalgo-Lopez told jurors they spent time with the defendant on the night of the shooting and one of the witnesses, Ms. Martinez, said Mr. Hidalgo-Lopez was at home at the time.

"Alibi is the key to the case," Mr. Karzen told jurors in his closing argument. "The bottom line is, do we accept the alibi?

"Can we believe the alibi witnesses?"

Defense attorneys, who admitted Mr. Hidalgo-Lopez once had been a member of a gang, questioned when the gang members' photographs were taken.

They also argued that just because Mr. Hidalgo-Lopez was photographed making hand signs doesn't mean he is a member of a gang.

"Remember, hand signs are a way of showing pride," Mr. Durden told jurors during closing arguments.

Mr. Durden, who only presented a few hours' worth of testimony and evidence, picked apart testimony elicited by prosecutors, saying some witnesses had changed their stories since they first spoke to investigators.

"The state has created so much smoke they want you to believe there is a fire," Mr. Durden said. "Where is the fire in this case? What is the truth?"

PROSECUTORS OVERCAME some testimony from witnesses they admitted were "less than truthful."

Mr. Karzen admitted that some of the witnesses who testified are not "angels," which might have played a role in sparking the shooting.

"That's why they're getting shot at - because they're gang members," Mr. Karzen said during his closing argument.

But, he argued, the defense's notions that Mr. Hidalgo-Lopez wasn't a gang member, that he wasn't at the scene of the shooting or that investigators coerced witnesses to say Mr. Hidalgo-Lopez participated in the shooting are false.

"I know a desperate shotgun defense when I see one," Mr. Karzen told jurors during his closing argument.