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Two teens get 50 to life in drive-by shooting; advocates protest sentence

January 6, 2010 |  6:51 pm

More than two dozen youths and advocates gathered in front of the criminal courts building in downtown Los Angeles to support two young males who were sentenced today to 50 years to life in prison for a fatal drive-by shooting.

A jury convicted Steven Menendez, 17, and Jose Garcia, 19, of murder in July in the March 2007 death of 16-year-old Danny Saavedra.

Saavedra was playing basketball in the 500 block of 82nd Street in South Los Angeles when he was shot in what police described as a gang-related attack. Afterward, officers pursued a vehicle matching the description of the one used in the killing, and when Garcia and Menendez got out, they were arrested.

Both later said they were just passengers and identified the shooter as Noel Velasco, a 26-year-old member of the Street Villains gang. Velasco was never charged and was shot to death three months later.

Saavedra’s parents and siblings spoke at the sentencing and told prosecutors they considered the sentence appropriate, said Jane Robison, a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office.

“These were two admitted gang members who went into rival gang territory, and they drove around not once but twice, slowed down and shot and killed a 16-year-old boy who had no gang connection,” Robison said.

But supporters of Garcia and Menendez said they did not deserve such harsh sentences.

“My son has never been locked up before,” said Menendez’s mother, Maria Luisa Borrego, 34, of Downey. “I don’t think this is justice at all. It’s more like vengeance.”

Rachel Veerman coordinates a support group for Menendez and other parents whose children are in jail or detention. She said her own son narrowly escaped being charged as an adult after friends took his car and used it in a drive-by shooting.

She said her son’s lawyer persuaded a judge to keep the attempted murder case in Juvenile Court, and her son was ordered to spend two years in state detention. He is now a freshman at Santa Clara University.

“We’ve been seeing more and more of these outrageous sentences — it just doesn’t make sense,” Veerman said. “They should pay for what they did, but now they’re just throwing them and our tax dollars away.”

Some supporters considered today's sentences a partial victory: Garcia had faced life without parole. About 250 prisoners convicted for crimes committed when they were youths are serving such sentences statewide, according to Kim McGill, an organizer with the Inglewood-based Youth Justice Coalition.

McGill said her group supports proposals to revise such strict sentencing laws. The Fair Sentences for Youth Act, sponsored by state Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) and scheduled for consideration by the state Assembly later this year, would allow some youths sentenced to life without parole to qualify to have their sentences reconsidered and be released.

“They learn much more in the community about what it means to be a good human being than they do in prison,” McGill said.

-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske