Deportation of witness stirs debate at trial

3 New Brunswick defendants face robbery charges in 2005 attack

Tuesday, September 25, 2007
Star-Ledger Staff

Prior to selecting jurors in the trial of three men accused of robbery in a 2005 attack, the attorneys debated the status of one witness -- a co-defendant who apparently has been deported.

The trio -- Juan Merino-Raphael, 26, Jose Merino, 23, and Victor Vasquez, 26 -- all of New Brunswick, face charges of first-degree robbery for the incident that occurred about 3 a.m. on July 2, 2005, in Bound Brook .

They face trial before Superior Court Judge Edward Coleman, and all appeared before him yesterday in Somerville with their defense attorneys, Louis Mangione Jr., Lewis Thompson and Santos Perez. Assistant Prosecutor Matthew Murphy appeared on behalf of the state.

The defendants allegedly were among a group of six men, reputed members of the 18th Street gang, who threatened three men and robbed them of money and clothing, police have said.

Half of the defendants, however, have since pleaded guilty, including a man named Sergio Lopez, who was expected to testify.

Vasquez's defense attorney, Santos Perez, insisted Lopez is crucial to his client's defense. Vasquez, who faces the lion's share of the charges, is accused of brandishing a knife. In addition to first-degree robbery, he is charged with third-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose, fourth-degree unlawful possession of a weapon, third-degree aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and third-degree hindering prosecution.

While his initial statement to Bound Brook police indicated that Vasquez had a knife, Lopez later indicated that Vasquez had no such weapon, Perez said.

"I was of the impression he would be a formidable, credible witnesses," Perez said. Considering all the witnesses who are not documented residents, Perez questioned why his key witness was deported. And while he didn't come out and accuse the prosecution, he inferred "the possibility of impropriety on behalf of the state."

"Is this just a conspiracy theory, or do you have something to support this?" Coleman said.

"I don't have the smoking gun, judge, it's all circumstantial," Perez said, insisting his client has been prejudiced by Lopez's absence.

"You're insinuating something nefarious by the state ... but you don't have any support for any of this," the judge said.

When asked what Perez did to find Lopez, from calling that defendant's attorney, to calling immigration, the defense attorney said he did neither.

Murphy vehemently denied having anything to do with Lopez's deportation.

Murphy said when the judge asked what Santos did to secure Lopez's testimony, "He didn't really answer you. ... He did not issue a subpoena to that witness locking in his testimony."

Customs enforcement had put detainers on everyone, Murphy said. While Lopez pushed to be sentenced quickly after pleading guilty in August 2006, the state opposed that move. "The state had nothing to do with whether Mr. Sergio Lopez was deported. I had nothing to do with his deportation. It's never been established that he is deported."

Murphy's office confirmed Lopez's status later in the afternoon, finding out he was deported in May.

In addition to the debate over one of the witnesses, there was some discussion as to whether the judge should ask perspective jurors about gangs. There are questions as to whether part of the defense will be that Vasquez, Merino and Merino-Raphael were members of the 18th Street gang who happened upon three members of a rival gang.

The attorneys, however, opted to leave the subject off the list of questions jurors would field before the final 12 are seated. Jury selection continues this morning.

Jennifer Golson may be reached at or at (90 429-9925. ... xml&coll=1