Pair plead no contest in South Merced shooting

vpatton@mercedsunstar.comFebruary 6, 2013 

Two men accused in the shooting of a 27-year-old Mercedian and subsequently leading police on a vehicle chase last summer are headed to prison after pleading no contest Wednesday to attempted murder charges.

Fernando Figueroa, 24, and Jovan Morgan, 17, were arrested in the June 16 shooting of Cesar Villafan, 27, in the alley in the 300 block of West 11th Street in South Merced.

Figueroa was identified as the driver and Morgan the triggerman. Prosecutor Steven Slocum said the crime had gang overtones.

Morgan said under questioning by law enforcement that he'd thought the victim had fired at his residence. Slocum said there's no evidence that Villafan, an ex-gang member, was responsible. The victim was wounded but survived.

Under the plea agreement, Morgan will receive 22 years in prison, and Figueroa will get nine years.

While both men pleaded no contest to attempted murder, Morgan's charge included gang and firearm enhancements. In addition to attempted murder, Figueroa also pleaded no contest to a charge of felony evading law enforcement.

The defendants will be formally sentenced by Judge Marc Garcia on March 15. Both will be eligible for parole after serving 85 percent of their sentences.

Morgan, who was a juvenile at the time of the shooting, was charged as an adult. "Given all the circumstances surrounding the case, we felt this was the appropriate disposition," Slocum said.

William Davis, Figueroa's defense attorney, said his client made the plea agreement because he could have faced more time in prison if the case went before a jury and he was convicted. "Therefore, he decided this was the best thing he could do under circumstances," Davis said.

Tom Pfeiff, Morgan's attorney, said his client entered his no contest plea for similar reasons.

Pfeiff said his client also confessed, and the district attorney's case was strong. "If he would have gone to trial and lost, he would have faced life in prison," the defense attorney said.

Morgan denies being a member of a gang, according to Pfeiff.

The incident happened shortly before 6:30 p.m. June 16. Agents from the county's Multi-Agency Gang Task Force were patrolling nearby when they heard gun shots, said Lt. Matt Williams.

After hearing the shots, the agents and Merced police pursued the defendants, who were driving away from the scene. The pursuit continued onto southbound Highway 99 at speeds up to 100 miles per hour, and the fleeing driver nearly struck another motorist, police said.

The suspects exited onto Mission Avenue and crashed head-on into a guardrail. The pair ran from the car and were followed on foot by officers. The defendants were captured near the Save Mart Supermarkets warehouse.

Inside the car, police found a loaded handgun. The bullets matched the casings found at the scene of the shooting.

City Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsunstar.com.

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