Gardner murder trial comes to a close

Jury deliberations are expected to begin this week following closing arguments in the shooting death of former Skyline College student Raymond Gardner, then 22, more than 2 years ago.

Fatal moments on Interstate 380 in San Bruno in the early hours of Jan. 12, 2003, have culminated in the four-week criminal trial of codefendants, Tito Sedeno and John Navarro, both 23 of San Francisco.

Opening statements began March 7 in San Mateo County Superior Court before the Honorable Joseph Bergeron.

In the early hours of Jan. 12, 2003, Sedeno, driving his white Chevy Tahoe, encountered a white Infiniti, in which Gardner was a passenger, and a light blue Acura carrying a group of Gardner’s friends on Interstate 380 in San Bruno.

Following a road rage incident between the Chevy and the Infiniti, shots were fired from the Tahoe at the Infiniti, one of which pierced the Infiniti’s rear window, went through the passenger’s headrest and struck Gardner in the back of his head, causing his death.

Hours after the shooting, following a high-speed police chase with the white Chevy Tahoe around the Bay Area, police arrested Tito Sedeno and passengers John Navarro and Richard Sedillo near Garfield Park in San Francisco.

Both defendants have been held without bail since their arrest on Jan. 12, 2003, while Sedillo was released hours after his arrest and not charged in the case.

Sedillo, a known San Francisco gang member and convicted felon who was on probation at the time, is the prosecution’s lead witness against Sedeno and Navarro.

Sedeno’s defense attorney, Mara Feiger, said authorities paid for Sedillo to be relocated into protective custody by the California Highway Patrol from San Francisco to an unknown location on Jan.15, 2003.

“He’s a paid witness,” Feiger said about Sedillo’s relocation.

On March 16, Sedillo testified that, at the time of the shooting on 380, when he was sitting in the front passenger seat, Sedeno pulled out a gun, “faced it towards my window and started to fire.”

Sedillo described a semiautomatic gun which was “about 10 inches from my face.” He said he put his hand to the gun to push it away from the front of his face. He also testified to hearing a semiautomatic firearm being shot by Navarro out the back passenger side window, but never looked to see what they were shooting at.

Criminalist John Jacobson, a ballistics expert, and criminalist Celia Hartnett, director of the Forensic Science Division at Forensic Analytical in Hayward, were called by the defense to testify last week as to their conclusions based on the evidence.

Both witnesses gave day-long testimony on bullet trajectories, distances, crime scene reconstruction, and gunshot residue. They illustrated their findings with photographs and presentations to show relationships of where a bullet originates from, given its ending position, and the results of testing different hypotheses in order to rule out what does not fit, given known facts.

Hartnett, in response to Deputy District Attorney Sean Gallagher pointing out she was called by the defense, told the court that in forensics she testifies to what the science of the evidence says and not on behalf of either the defense or prosecution in any criminal case.

In the final analysis, Hartnett said, based on trajectory evidence, it was possible but highly unlikely that the fatal shot which killed Gardner was fired from the rear passenger-side window given the limited 6.25 to 6.5 inch drop-down open space of the rear passenger window.

Jacobson testified that his examination of the ballistics evidence yielded an inconclusive result as to whether more than one weapon was used.

During direct examination of Sedillo earlier in the trial, Gallagher asked him to describe the clothing worn by himself and the defendants at the time of the shooting. Sedillo described his clothing as a black denim jacket and black pants, with Sedeno wearing a red shirt, and Navarro a gray sweatshirt with black around the neckline only.

Yet, Jeffrey Chin, driver of the blue Acura, had testified earlier in the trial to seeing an arm fully extended out the right front passenger window of the Chevy, clothed in a black sleeve, holding a gun and shooting at Alexander Shieh, driver of the white Infiniti in which the victim was a passenger.

Mara Feiger, Sedeno’s defense attorney, said her client had taken and passed a polygraph test given by former FBI Agent Ronald R. Homer.

“In sixteen years of practice, I’ve never had a client who’s passed a polygraph test (before Sedillo),” Feiger said. The results of the polygraph have not been admitted into evidence.

According to Feiger, “My client didn’t shoot anybody.” She pointed out that there was another witness to the shooting, Lois Buenaflor. What she saw, according to Feiger, was “Sedillo firing out his window and out the driver’s window.”

However, questions about the stability of Buenaflor’s mental health have been raised by prosecutor Gallagher and Navarro’s defense attorney Myra Weiher, which they hope will discredit her testimony.

Buenaflor has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and has failed to take a medication prescribed for her condition, but her testimony refutes that of Sedillo and puts a gun in everybody’s hands at times.

Feiger, however, said Sedillo’s statements contain critical lies that put guns into the hands of Sedeno and Navarro, and not his own. Sedillo also denies that Buenaflor was in the Tahoe, and, Feiger asserts that his denial of Buenaflor’s presence is because she knows he is the shooter.

While Feiger acknowledges Buenaflor’s health issues, she said, “We’re not picking her; she is a witness.

“Mentally ill people tend not to be liars. They are the most honest people because they don’t have filters.”

In a pretrial motion, Judge Bergeron ruled Buenaflor could not testify as a “live” witness, therefore, her testimony was taped outside the presence of the jury for later viewing.

On March 25, the jury watched hours of Buenaflor’s testimony, which included extensive questioning by attorneys of her mental health and medication history which appeared grueling and invasive for Buenaflor, who was often unresponsive to questions, distracted, and unfocused.

“I thought this case was about other people.” Buenaflor said. “You’re asking me to explain a type of medication?”

“It seems this whole entire time you guys are asking these kind of questions and not asking me about these guys in this case.” Buenaflor said in her testimony. “You’re focusing on one issue.”

When asked by prosecutor Gallagher about sleeping with her boyfriend, Buenaflor said, “Isn’t that a personal question?” She then turned to ask judge Bergeron, “Don’t you sustain questions like this?”

On March 25, in videotaped evidence of Buenaflor’s testimony, Gallagher asked, “Lois, when you were in the car, were all three of those guys shooting out of windows?” Buenaflor answered, “Yes.”

Feiger is not pleased with the police investigation and said the police had “absolutely not” done a thorough enough investigation.

She referred to Sedillo’s testimony about the presence of gunshot residue on his hand being from when he pushed the gun away from his face as the smarts of a seasoned criminal. That covered that potential problem for him, she said. She also said that the police are there to make arrests; the prosecution is up to the district attorney. According to Feiger, other facts will be ignored and not pursued.

“‘I will be flabbergasted,’ is such an understatement if there’s such a miscarriage of justice in this case,” she said.

The courtroom is often filled at capacity with many members of the victim’s and defendants’ families.

Karen Gardner, mother of the victim and a 1998 graduate of Skyline College said, “I just want the trial to be over.”

When asked about the testimony of Sedillo, she said “I believe him, and not just because he’s helping us, but because he’s telling the truth.”

Reg
arding the testimony of Buenaflor, Ms. Gardner said “I believe Buenaflor is making it all up. They’re just having kids, getting in gangs and raising them that way.

“Children are gifts from God.”

Wanda Stewart, the victim’s grandmother said, “if I had to pick a grandson, I’d pick Ray. He was pure.”

Deputy District Attorney Gallagher has not yet returned a phone call asking for his comments on the bullet trajectory evidence, the polygraph test and Buenaflor.

The polygraph test

In an interview with The Skyline View on March 27, Homer confirmed he served as an FBI special agent from 1976 to 1997, and specialized in polygraph examinations for the FBI from 1987 to 1996.Homer administered a polygraph test to defendant Tito Sedeno on April 29, 2004, wherein Sedeno was asked the following series of questions:

A. Did you shoot out of the passenger window on 1/12/2003? Answer: NoB. Did you shoot out of the passenger window of your Tahoe on 1/12/2003? Answer: NoC. Was there a fourth person in the Tahoe during the shooting on 1/12/2003? Answer: YesD. Are you lying to me about a fourth person being in the Tahoe during the shooting on 1/12/2003? Answer: No

In the written opinion of the recorded responses Homer wrote, “It is my opinion that these responses are not indicative of deception” and that of another certified polygraph examiner, Mr. Sedeno was truthful when answering.”