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Jury acquits Palos Verdes Estates man of murder in suspected gang killing in South L.A.

A Palos Verdes Estates man was acquitted Monday on charges of murder and two counts of attempted murder in connection with the fatal shooting of a 21-year-old man in South L.A. last year.

The case made headlines in October after Cameron Terrell, 18, then a senior at Palos Verdes High School, was arrested in connection with the slaying. Prosecutors argued that Terrell joined a gang and drove  two younger members to rival gang territory. The two younger teens got out and confronted three others, including Justin Holmes, who was fatally shot in broad daylight near South Western Avenue and West 78th Street, according to prosecutors. Terrell was released on $5-million bail seven days later.

As the verdicts were read in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom, relatives of Holmes shook their heads and sighed. Several dabbed their eyes with tissues. Terrell, dressed in a navy suit, stared straight ahead. At one point, his defense attorney, Jovan Blacknell, patted him on the back.

After the verdict, Blacknell said that the case was the result of “blatant overcharging” and that prosecutors focused more on Facebook posts and rap music videos than real evidence.

Blacknell said that the evidence showed that Terrell “did not possess any weapons, he did not shoot anybody, he was not part of any conspiracy or any plan or plot to commit any crimes.”

“At best, the evidence suggests that Cameron was a witness, and that’s it,” he said.

A prosecutor did not respond to a request for comment.

Jurors deliberated for nearly a week before reaching a verdict. Twenty-three witnesses were called to testify during the trial, which began July 3.

After Terrell was released from jail last year, parents of students at Palos Verdes High School became angry that he continued to attend classes. School officials and Terrell’s family eventually agreed he would complete his studies off-campus.

Terrell became known to Los Angeles police gang officers in the spring of 2017 through interactions at Jesse Owens Park, a main hangout for the Rollin’ 90s Neighborhood Crips, according to court testimony. Online posts show that Terrell may have started hanging out with gang members the year before.

During the trial, prosecutors argued that the killing was a way for Terrell to gain status within the gang, and they presented the jury with photographs, videos, texts and Facebook messages in which Terrell posed with known gang members, wore gang colors and threw gang signs.

In a video widely circulated after Terrell’s arrest, he’s shown in the background, wearing the gang’s colors and throwing up gang signs. Police found a T-shirt marked with “Milk,” Terrell’s alleged gang moniker, in baby blue on the back in his car. He also spoke to others of his allegiance to the gang and distaste for the gang’s rivals, and had a tattoo of a “W” on his chest to represent the specific clique he claimed, according to court testimony.

“He doesn’t take any of that back to Palos Verdes,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Tricia Taylor told the jury.

On Oct. 1, 2017, Justin Holmes was walking with two friends in the Manchester Square neighborhood when two teenagers walked up to them and one asked what gang they were from, according to authorities.

The two people who were with Holmes ran, and Holmes told the teenagers that he didn’t “gangbang,” according to trial testimony. One of the teenagers began shooting, and Holmes collapsed, according to testimony.

Holmes worked for U-Haul and was visiting friends on a day off from work.

“They didn’t even see this coming,” Taylor said.

During closing arguments, Taylor said that Holmes was not a gang member but rather a man who was excited about his job and his future. 

“You can avoid the membership, but you can’t avoid the violence,” she said of Holmes.

Surveillance video captured near the scene showed two teenagers jumping into a black Mercedes-Benz. The car, registered to Terrell’s father, then sped away.

The criminal case against the two teenagers, who are juveniles, is pending.

Blacknell argued that although a close friend of his had joined a gang, Terrell was not a gang member. Instead he read books about gang life and went on an “L.A. gang binge.”

Terrell, he said, was known in South L.A. for giving away clothing and letting people borrow his luxury car. Terrell, who comes from a wealthy background and lives in a home valued at nearly $2 million, is privileged, Blacknell said, but that came with “a cost,” and with naiveté.

Blacknell said that Terrell got his tattoo — a W in the style of the Washington Nationals baseball team — because his favorite basketball player, Kevin Durant, also has the tattoo.

On the day of the shooting, Terrell thought he and the two other teenagers were going to graffiti the area, his defense attorney said.

“Cameron didn’t expect to hear gunshots,” Blacknell told the jury. “He didn’t expect any of this to happen. He didn’t know the boys had guns.”

Terrell thought that gang life was cool, and was merely trying to study the culture, Blacknell said.

The photographs, videos and text and Facebook messages weren’t real, he argued, but a “fantasy world.”

Blacknell called witnesses to testify to Terrell’s character during the trial. All of them said they didn’t think he could murder another human being.

Terrell, who completed high school off campus, said he will attend college at the University of Houston. After the verdict, Terrell made a brief statement to the media.

“I want to say rest in peace, Justin Holmes,” he said. “He shouldn’t have died that day. I pray for his family every night.”

Photo: Cameron Terrell, the former Palos Verdes High School student accused of driving the getaway car in a suspected gang killing, was acquitted on all three counts tied to the case. Terrell appeared during a news conference with his attorney, Jovan Blacknell, right. Credit: Al Seib, Los Angeles Times

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