OAKLAND -- Two East Oakland gang members on Wednesday were sentenced to more years in prison than they could possibly live in connection with a 2011 drive-by shooting on a busy East Oakland thoroughfare that killed a 3-year-old boy.
An Alameda County jury in June convicted Lawrence Denard, 29, and Willie Torrence, 25, of first-degree murder in the death of young Carlos Nava and two counts of premeditated attempted murder for wounding two men authorities say were the intended targets of the Aug. 8, 2011, afternoon shooting on International Boulevard at 64th Avenue.
Denard and Torrence, whose attorneys say are innocent, were also found guilty of gun and gang participation charges and charge enhancements. Judge Jeffrey Horner described the evidence against them as "overwhelming, devastating and powerful" and gave Denard and Torrence consecutive instead of concurrent sentences. Denard, the convicted shooter, received 137 years to life in prison, and Torrence, the driver, received 121 years to life.
Deputy district attorney Ben Beltramo argued during the six-week trial that Denard and Torrence sprayed the block with at least 10 shots with intent to kill rival gang members Jerome Williams and Robert Hudson, who each survived their gunshot wounds, as part of a neighborhood gang war.
Carlos, his older brother and their mother had just left a grocery store when the youngest boy, sitting in a stroller, was fatally hit in the neck by a stray bullet.
In letters to the court read aloud by Beltramo on Wednesday, Carlos' mother and grandmother said that they continue to struggle with depression, confusion, anxiety and health problems because of the boy's death. No longer feeling safe in Oakland, they moved out of the area after the killing.
The mother, Maria Teresa Nava, said she feels an "overwhelming sadness that never goes away," and holds on to the good memories of him.
"Thank you to everyone (involved in the case) and I hope to move on from this and help my other children have success in life," the mother wrote.
Denard's attorney, Annie Beles, said that Carlos' death is tragic but so is Denard being sentenced for a crime he didn't commit. She argued at trial that police and prosecutors were so desperate to make arrests in the shocking killing that they used leverage in a weapons case and the promise of victim compensation money to sway two witnesses into falsely identifying Denard as the gunman.
Those two witnesses did not point to Denard as the shooter, however, once in the courtroom, Beles said. She said the defendants, as well as the adult shooting victims, were mislabeled as a gang members by police and the jury reached its guilty verdicts because of cynicism, fear and a dead child.
"It is a disservice to justice to convict a man on this type of evidence," Beles said.
Horner said the greatest witnesses against Denard and Torrence were the defendants' themselves, with their gang tattoos and their jailhouse letters showing a "fixation" with tracking down witnesses to intimidate them into not testifying.
Especially compelling to the judge was a video that Denard filmed 50 minutes before the shooting in which he was talking about rivals and waving a Glock that authorities believe was the murder weapon they never found.
Judge Horner likened Denard in the video to "the angel of death."
Contact Malaika Fraley at 925-234-1684. Follow her at Twitter.com/malaikafraley.