Retrial sought after casino shootout conviction tossed

RENO — Washoe County prosecutors have decided to retry an ex-motorcycle gang member on murder charges after the state Supreme Court overturned his conviction in a 2011 shootout with rival gang leaders at a northern Nevada casino.

Washoe District Judge Connie Steinheimer has scheduled a hearing June 8 to consider the motion for a new trial for Ernesto Gonzalez, 58, and set a date for the proceedings.

Michelle Bays, spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office, said Wednesday that she couldn’t provide details but confirmed assistants to District Attorney Chris Hicks will argue for the retrial of the former president of the Nicaraguan chapter of the Vagos, who was sentenced in 2013 to up to life in prison.

“We have every intention of seeing Mr. Gonzalez prosecuted as we did before,” she told The Associated Press.

The Supreme Court overturned Gonzalez’ conviction for first-degree murder and conspiracy in December partly because of faulty instructions provided to the jury that found him guilty of murder and conspiracy in the killing of Jeffrey “Jethro” Pettigrew, ex-president of the Hells Angels in San Jose, California.

Prosecutors said the shooting on a busy casino floor in Sparks was an orchestrated hit during a biker festival that drew tens of thousands of motorcycling enthusiasts to the area in September 2011.

Gonzalez, who was living in San Francisco at the time, said he opened fire only because Pettigrew and another Hells Angel were kicking a fellow Vagos member, Robert Wiggins, so hard in the head he thought they would kill him.

The Supreme Court ruled, among other things, that Steinheimer erred during the original trial when she declined to answer a jury question during deliberations about what constitutes conspiracy.

Steinheimer found the evidence presented sufficient — corroborated by hours of surveillance tape — that she need not answer. The justices concluded that the video corroborated the murder, but not the conspiracy.

In appealing his conviction, Gonzalez’ lawyers argued that the jurors’ confusion was evident when they sent out a note to the judge asking, “If a person has no knowledge of the conspiracy but their actions contribute to someone else’s plan, are they guilty of conspiracy?”

The justices said Steinheimer should have provided clarification.

“One of the central issues in this case was whether Pettigrew’s death was part of a premeditated conspiracy or occurred in the course of a spontaneous clash between two biker gangs,” Justice Nancy Saitta wrote in the unanimous opinion Dec. 31. “When a defendant does not know that he or she is acting in furtherance of an unlawful act, there can be no conspiracy.”

Hicks filed a motion for a rehearing before the high court, but the justices unanimously refused in an order issued in March with no explanation.


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