Penalty phase begins for cop killer

Jurors in San Mateo County heard opening statements this morning in the penalty phase of the trial of a man convicted last month of killing East Palo Alto police Officer Richard May in January 2006.

Alberto Alvarez, 26, was found guilty Nov. 25 of first-degree murder with the special circumstance of killing a peace officer.

The special circumstance makes him eligible for the death penalty, which prosecutor Steve Wagstaffe today told jurors is the “appropriate” penalty.

If Alvarez is not sentenced to death, he will get life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The shooting occurred the afternoon of Jan. 7, 2006. May had responded to a fight involving Alvarez at the Villa Taqueria in East Palo Alto at about 4:30 p.m. May ended up chasing Alvarez, and the two exchanged gunfire in a confrontation that followed the foot pursuit.

Alvarez suffered one bullet wound to the leg, and May died at the scene.

It took jurors less than six hours to reach their verdict in the case.

Wagstaffe this morning asked jurors to consider the nature and circumstances of the crime, as well as Alvarez's prior felony convictions.

Wagstaffe said Alvarez's actions prior to his arrest for May's murder, and his conduct while in jail and awaiting the trial, also show that he deserves the highest punishment.

Twice while in jail, Alvarez started fights with other inmates, including a mentally disabled man, Wagstaffe said.

Separately, a gun was found on Alvarez on two occasions prior to May's murder, which “shows Alvarez's desire to possess a gun,” Wagstaffe said.

Family members and friends of May are expected to testify during the penalty phase, which Wagstaffe said will illustrate to the jurors the impact of May's killing.

“He is not simply a dead officer in a driveway,” Wagstaffe said. “He was a human being who served his community.”

The penalty phase is expected to last several weeks, and both May's and Alvarez's family members and friends will testify.

Defense attorney Eric Liberman today asked the jury to “spare Alvarez's life.”

He said that while “there is no way to downplay the loss” May's family has suffered, he hopes to put Alvarez's actions into context.

When Alvarez was a child, Liberman said, his father was sent to prison for dealing drugs. Upon his release, his father became an alcoholic and remained emotionally absent during Alvarez's early years, Liberman said.

With his mother working full-time to support the family, Alvarez, who suffers from learning disabilities, began cutting school and took to a life on the streets, he said.

“The death penalty is reserved for the worst of the worst,” Liberman said. “Life without parole allows him to serve out the remainder of his days in a small prison cell.”

Testimony was scheduled to begin this afternoon.

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