The process to determine whether District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis will seek the death penalty in the triple murder case against Carlo Mercado begins now.
Wednesday, a judge determined there is enough evidence to send the defendant to trial in the shooting deaths of Salvatore Belverdere, Gianni Belvedere and his fiancée Ilona Flint, starting last Christmas Eve.
Mercado's charges include what are called special circumstances, so it's clear the district attorney's office believes this case at least potentially meets death penalty criteria, even though the decision is more than two weeks away.
By most accounts, the case against Carlo Mercado meets at least two death penalty criteria.
“It's egregious, first of all, and that it’s multiple killings,” said defense attorney Gretchen von Helms.
Von Helms said the DA considers everything before deciding to pursue the death penalty -- no matter the circumstances.
“She is very fair minded about this process. She meets with defense council. She meets with the victims of the various family members,” von Helms said.
Sometimes the greater hurdle to overcome is the cost to county taxpayers, the attorney said.
Mercado's attorney Gary Gibson urged the court Wednesday to better scrutinize the DA's case because it could result in his client’s death.
“What we don't know says more about this case then what we do know. In some respects, this case is still unsolved,” Gibson said.
Determining a verdict and securing the death penalty are two different processes, but the strength of the evidence matters in both.
The prosecution does not have a motive -- something juries prefer when ruling on a proper sentence.
“It helps to explain why this may have happened, but it is not necessary to obtain a conviction,” von Helms said.
The gun used in all three homicides is registered to defendant Carlo Mercado, prosecutors say. Investigators testified they have Mercado's DNA on and in the car truck where Gianni Belvedere's body was found.
Cell phone and computer records show an “RI.P.” entry in Mercado's smartphone calendar on the date Flint and Salvatore were fatally shot in a Mission Valley mall parking lot: Dec. 24, 2013.
Still Gibson says proving Mercado committed multiple murders will not be easy because the prosecution can't physically link the defendant to the Mission Valley scene.
“All of the DNA that was processed, not linked to Carlo Mercado. All the prints processed, no link to Carlo Mercado. All of the trace evidence taken from that scene showed no link to Carlo Mercado,” Gibson said.
According to California Department of Corrections data, San Diego County juries handed down death penalties nine times since 2000.
Nearly $10 million has been spent in the pursuit of executions during that same time period.
But any death sentence could be rendered moot if a federal ruling calling the state’s death penalty unconstitutional stands.
California's attorney general has vowed to appeal the decision that claims death penalties take too long to carry out.