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Dressed neatly in a white oxford cloth shirt with a blue pullover sweater, David Medina, a.k.a. “Happy,” pursed his lips and appeared to listen closely as Judge John Thompson handed down Medina’s sentence — nine consecutive life terms plus 156 years. It was August 1, 2001. Medina was 24 years old.

Earlier during the sentencing hearing, Medina explained to Judge Thompson that he had been wrongly convicted on July 3 of four counts of first-degree murder and five counts of attempted murder in gang-related shootings between 1996 and 1999. “I know I’ve made a lot of poor decisions in my life,” Medina said, “but I also know I can say I’ve been convicted of crimes I didn’t commit.”

Before Medina pleaded his case to the judge, his mother read a prepared statement explaining her family’s “unconditional love for our son” and her belief that “David is innocent of the charges against him.” She commended her son for “facing this indescribable ordeal with courage and dignity” and vowed to “do everything to exonerate David and reunite him with his family.”

After her statement, Armando Vasquez, one victim’s father, read a brief statement. “I’d also like to reiterate my unconditional love for my son,” Vasquez said. “David Medina is a poor excuse for a human being.”

Medina’s crimes stunned his family and friends; they simply baffled everyone else. People that I spoke with could not fathom that someone with his talents and intellect could murder for the sake of a small street gang. Medina’s story doesn’t corroborate anything anyone knows, or thinks he knows, about gangs and urban violence. Though the crimes themselves are solved, the motives will always be a mystery.

David Medina was a kind son, a loving father, a cum laude graduate of UC San Diego, a passionate advocate for social justice, and a trigger-happy leader of the Southeast Locos — a local gang with turf from Southeast San Diego down to Chula Vista. The gang’s 30 or so members had a reputation for being well educated, employed, and violent.

I gleaned this narrative of Medina’s life, crimes, and trial from a variety of sources, including the prosecution’s statement of fact, court documents outlining grand jury and trial testimony, police interviews with witnesses and suspects, letters between attorneys, and interviews with the few people willing to talk about the case. The single best source for information about Medina is the sentencing document presented to the court by his appointed defense attorney, Douglas Brown. The bound book — submitted about three weeks before the day of the sentencing to aid the defense’s request for leniency — includes chapters on Medina’s family, “early years,” “college years,” “commitment to social justice,” and brief marriage. It also includes an appendix of letters written in support of Medina by his family, friends, professors, and coworkers. The district attorney’s office and the court did withhold certain documents, however, because the second trial of Ruben “Bandit” Bernal, a Southeast Loco charged with some of the same crimes as Medina, was still pending while I worked on this story.

The Student

“He likes Far Side cartoons and tuna fish,” the defense’s sentencing document explains. He is an “avid weight lifter” and “wants to go to law school so that he can utilize the law to help poor people.” By all appearances, Medina was a normal, though gifted, college graduate. David Arturo Medina was born on September 29, 1976, in Delano, California — a farming town on Highway 99 between Bakersfield and Fresno. His parents, Eliseo Vasquez Medina and Dorothy Ann Johnson, were volunteers with the United Farm Workers of America — César Chávez’s farmers union.

Medina’s father and Chávez were close friends and comrades during the 1970s. Eliseo Medina emigrated from Mexico when he was ten. He was the son of a Mexican farmworker who participated in the U.S. bracero program, which ran from 1942 to 1964. The U.S. Department of Labor had brought in Mexican braceros — “a pair of arms” — during World War II to fill jobs vacated by Okies and others shipped off to join the military or to work in urban factories. According to Susan Ferriss and Ricardo Sandoval, authors of The Fight in the Fields: César Chávez and the Farmworkers Movement (1997), during the postwar years the bracero program “was riddled with abuse. Delighted with what turned out to be a compliant, dutiful, and cheap workforce during World War II, western farmers had successfully lobbied federal agencies to continue the bracero program into peacetime.” Ernesto Galarza, an educated advocate for better conditions for the braceros, described in his 1964 book Merchants of Labor how the workers were forced to eat “sheep heads,” “chicken necks,” and “moldy leftovers.” These were the conditions that Chávez sought to improve through his union programs.

Eliseo grew interested in organizing because he experienced some of the awful working conditions himself when he was an 18-year-old farm laborer in Delano. He told Ferriss and Sandoval about an unscrupulous contractor who cheated his workers to cover bad debts. “Every Saturday we’d have to get up at six in the morning, and the whole crew would go and stake out his house and not leave until he paid us,” Eliseo said. “Here, this group of people had taken this guy and made him pay back wages. This guy was the biggest labor contractor around, and he got dinged!”

It was during the 1965 Delano grape strike — when Filipino, Mexican, and Chicano workers walked out of the fields — that Eliseo first met Chávez. On September 16, Mexican Independence Day, Eliseo sat at home nursing a broken leg and watching I Love Lucy. When he heard of the strike, he hobbled on crutches to Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, in Delano, and watched the small-statured Chávez galvanize the crowd. That night Eliseo shook all the money out of his piggy bank, went to the union office, and paid three months’ worth of dues, $10.50, all at once. He was quickly seduced by the cause. “We were standing tall,” he told Ferriss and Sandoval. He moved up the ranks and became one of the youngest organizers to earn Chávez’s trust.

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