The Utah Supreme Court on Friday upheld the murder conviction of Riqo Perea, who is serving life without the possibility of parole for the gang-related killing of two people at a post-wedding party in 2007.
In March 2010, a jury convicted Perea of two counts of aggravated murder for killing Sabrina Prieto, 22, and Rosendo Nevarez, 29, while firing into a crowd at an Ogden home the night of August 4, 2007.
Perea also was convicted of two counts of first-degree felony attempted murder for wounding two others during the gang-related drive-by shooting.
Second District Judge Ernie Jones handed down a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, rather than a less harsh prison term of 25 years to life.
Perea raised a number of issues on appeal, including that the judge precluded the testimony of an expert witnesses called by the defense.
The high court found that the judge did err by excluding testimony from one defense expert. But the justices concluded that the error was harmless and did not undermine their confidence in the guilty verdict "when viewed against the backdrop of Mr. Perea’s overwhelming guilt."
Perea — who was 19 years old at the time of the shooting — confessed to police that he was the one who leaned out of the front passenger-side window of an SUV and fired over the roof of the car into the wedding party.
Prosecutors claimed at trial that an insult from a rival gang member was all it took for Perea to pull a gun and fire into the crowd.
"In the gang world, it’s all about respect, and it’s all about retaliation," Deputy Weber County Attorney Gary Heward told jurors during closing arguments. "Riqo Perea was going to show he was the biggest and baddest."
But defense attorney Randy Richards argued that Perea was ordered by an older gang member to "take the rap" for the shooting, and that Perea confessed to protect his family.
On appeal, attorney Samuel Newton argued before the high court in February that Jones erred by not allowing a defense expert to testify about why people falsely confess to crimes they did not commit.
Newton also argued that Jones ruled prior to the trial that a computer-animated reenactment prepared for the defense could be used at trial, but in the middle of the trial prosecutors raised an issue with the reenactment and Jones changed his mind.
This was unfair, Newton argued, because prosecutors were able to show a reenactment of their version of events.
Assistant Attorney General Christopher Ballard said in February that the defense video was not shown to the jury because of issues with the reenactment, including questions about who created it and because it contained factual errors such as an incorrect bullet trajectory and use of the wrong type of vehicle.
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