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Originally published Tuesday, March 18, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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U.S. Supreme Court to review '94 murder case

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to consider whether to reinstate the murder conviction of the driver in a fatal drive-by shooting of...

Seattle Times staff reporter

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to consider whether to reinstate the murder conviction of the driver in a fatal drive-by shooting of a Ballard High School student 14 years ago.

The Supreme Court is slated to hear oral arguments this fall in the case of Cesar Sarausad II, who was a 19-year-old University of Washington engineering student when Melissa Fernandes was fatally shot at Ballard High on March 23, 1994.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco had overturned Sarausad's second-degree murder conviction because it determined that King County Superior Court Judge Larry A. Jordan erred when he told jurors Sarausad could be convicted of murder regardless of whether he knew of any plan for a killing.

The appeals panel ruled that the jury should have been told Sarausad could be convicted of murder only if he knew the triggerman had a gun and planned to kill.

The state appealed the 9th Circuit decision, and the Supreme Court agreed on Monday to hear the case.

The shooting of Fernandes, 16, sent shock waves through a city that was then grappling with a wave of youth-gang violence.

According to Seattle Times reports, Sarausad was the driver of one of two cars that were loaded with teenage boys and young men who were members of a loose-knit Seattle gang called the 23rd Street Diablos.

One of the gang members, Jerome Reyes, had reportedly been chased off the Ballard High School campus a few days earlier by several members of a rival gang, the Bad Side Posse.

The cars with members of the 23rd Street gang pulled up to the school around lunchtime and then left when told police were in the area, according to news reports. They returned about an hour later.

This time, one of the young men in the cars, Brian Ronquillo, then 16, had a semiautomatic handgun with him, court documents say. Ronquillo fired eight times as the car passed students on the school grounds.

Fernandes, who police said was a friend of both groups and not an intended target, was killed. Another student was injured.

Eleven young men were arrested and charged in connection with the shootings.

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Ronquillo was convicted of first-degree murder and attempted murder and sentenced to 52 years in prison.

Reyes pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter after a jury deadlocked on a first-degree murder charge. He was sentenced to eight years in prison.

Sarausad, who has remained in prison throughout the appeals process, was convicted of second-degree murder, two counts of attempted murder and assault and was sentenced to 27 years.

The state Attorney General's Office said Sarausad's conviction was appropriate given the wording of Washington's accomplice-liability laws. Attorneys with the state will argue that the jury instruction and conviction of Sarausad had been affirmed by the state courts and that the federal courts should not be involved.

"We're gratified the U.S. Supreme Court has taken the case, and we look forward to showing that the state court ruling on this case should be upheld," said Deputy Solicitor General Jay D. Geck with the state Attorney General's Office.

If the Supreme Court affirms the 9th Circuit ruling overturning the conviction, prosecutors could retry Sarausad for the crime.

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or cclarridge@seattletimes.com

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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