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The Modesto Bee
By SUSAN HERENDEEN, BEE STAFF WRITER
Last Updated: September 13, 2005, 06:04:21 AM PDT
As Laci Peterson’s murder grabbed the headlines, the family of Martha Moreno watched and waited their turn, and believed their day would come.
But no jury will ever have the chance to decide if Gilberto Cano, 32, should get the death penalty for stabbing his pregnant girlfriend in the belly three times, then strangling her.
Monday, Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Hurl Johnson sentenced Cano to 17 years to life in prison, in a stamp of approval to a plea deal negotiated by the district attorney’s office and defense attorneys for second-degree murder.
Moreno’s family members said Cano should have faced the death penalty for the April 20, 2002, killing of Moreno, 29, and their 26-week-old fetus. The couple shared a Kerr Avenue home in Modesto’s airport neighborhood.
The judge said he followed the law in sentencing Cano to prison.
“It’s not a perfect system and there’s no way in the world that the court can ever resolve what happened,” the judge said. “Martha should be here right now and she’s not.”
The deal disappointed members of Moreno’s family. They also were upset by a claim by Cano’s attorney that his client was mentally ill.
Kathryn Moreno, the victim’s sister-in-law, addressed Cano in court: “You say you’re crazy, you’re delusional, you’re upset by your mother’s death. Why didn’t you just kill yourself?”
More than three years ago, prosecutor Rick Distaso now a Superior Court judge charged Cano with two counts of first-degree murder and special allegations that could have resulted in a death sentence.
Distaso brought the same charges against Scott Peterson a year later. Distaso, Senior Deputy District Attorney Dave Harris and Chief Deputy District Attorney Birgit Fladager used circumstantial evidence to send Peterson to death row.
No cable TV, no tabloids
A jury believed that Peterson killed his wife and unborn son, even though prosecutors had no physical evidence and could not say exactly how the crime was committed.
Unlike the Peterson case, Cano’s did not generate any speculation on cable television talk shows, and Moreno’s smiling face never became fodder for supermarket tabloids.
Authorities recovered a knife wrapped in a bloody T-shirt, according to a report by the Sheriff’s Department, and found Moreno’s body at the base of her bed, under some blankets.
Immediately after the killing, Cano went to his sister’s house in Ceres and said he “did something bad to Martha,” according to testimony at a preliminary hearing.
Family members believed that Cano was on drugs, because of his blank stare. But authorities found no evidence of alcohol or drugs in his system, according to a toxicology report by the state Department of Justice.
Defense attorney Kirk McAllister said mental illness was the only possible explanation for Moreno’s killing.
Cano, a bricklayer who was separated from the mother of his two other children, had no prior convictions, no history of domestic violence and no reason to kill his girlfriend, his attorney said.
“This was the onset of a mental illness which had a tragic ending,” McAllister said, noting that Cano had taken Prozac to help with his depression.
The courtroom was full during the sentencing hearing, with nearly two dozen people in the audience to support Moreno and a dozen to support Cano.
Cano looked into his lap during much of the hearing and said nothing. His supporters declined to comment after the hearing.
Fladager and Harris, who took over the case when Distaso left the prosecutor’s office, said a first-degree murder conviction might have been hard to obtain, because of the question surrounding Cano’s state of mind. A first-degree murder conviction requires premeditation.
The prosecutors said convicted murderers rarely are released on parole, and noted that a trial might not have resulted in a stiffer sentence.
“In any trial, there’s always a risk, and there were elements in this case that we needed to take into consideration,” Fladager said.
Cano’s sentence breaks down to 15 years to life for second-degree murder and two years for the use of a knife and ligature, used in strangulation.
Also, the judge said Cano must pay restitution to cover the costs of Moreno’s burial, and counseling for her daughter, mother and one of her sisters.
Cano will be eligible for parole in 2022. Fladager said the district attorney’s office will attend Cano’s parole hearings and fight against his release.
Guadalupe Banderas, who choked on tears as she imagined how her sister must have suffered, wanted more.
She said her sister was a gentle, caring person who will never get to see her 10-year-old daughter graduate from high school or get married.
“A criminal who has taken two lives should have no natural right to his own life,” Banderas said.
Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at 578-2338 or firstname.lastname@example.org.