LANGLEY PARK -- The family of a Salvadoran immigrant who was beaten and kicked to death in September expressed outrage yesterday at a decision this week by the Prince George's County state's attorney to drop murder and assault charges against four of seven Laurel teen-agers charged in the killing.
"We want justice," Juan Hernandez, 21, brother of victim Gilberto Hernandez, said at a news conference at the Prince George's Community Policing Satellite Office in Langley Park. "I don't understand why those that played a part in murdering my brother are being released."
On Tuesday, State's Attorney Jack Johnson announced that assault and murder charges against Gerald Douglas Culbreath, 16, Sharif A. Sinkler, 17, Anthony Steven Barclay, 16, and David Burley, 19, were dropped after Prince George's authorities concluded that the four teens did not have any contact with Hernandez. The four have agreed to testify against three suspects who are still charged, Johnson said.
Charged with common-law murder and assault are Cochise I. Queen, 17, Kelly D. Martin, 18, and Steven Darby, 16. Queen remains in the Prince George's County Detention Center; Martin and Darby have been released on $100,000 bond and are on home detention.
The Hernandez family and Latino leaders across Maryland criticized the prosecutor's handling of the murder investigation. They faulted Johnson for failing to interview Tomas and Juan Hernandez, who said they witnessed their brother being kicked to death the night of Sept. 4.
"We want to know why the state's attorney not once ever interviewed the two prime witnesses that saw what happened," said the Rev. Brian Jordan, a spokesman for the Hernandez family. "This doesn't make sense."
Johnson said the brothers were not interviewed for unspecified "legal reasons."
Tomas and Juan Hernandez say they saw their brother chased '' and attacked by a group of teen-agers wielding knives. They managed to break away, but they said the group caught their brother, knocked him to the ground and kicked him. Relatives immediately rushed him to a hospital, but he died four days later from internal bleeding and brain injuries.
Laurel police say the motive was robbery, but Johnson said evidence does not indicate that was the reason for the attack. He said he does not believe any of the youths had knives. Johnson did not offer a motive.
But Laurel Police Chief Roy Gilmore said yesterday that he believes all seven teen-agers tried to steal money from Hernandez.
He said his department "stands by the investigative findings of the Laurel police on the death of Gilberto Hernandez." He also said police appropriately charged the suspects with assault, robbery and murder.
Laurel Mayor Frank P. Casula said he has great confidence in the Laurel Police Department and is upset with the prosecutor's decision.
"I'm going to call Jack and give him a piece of my mind," Casula said. "We're sticking with the original police report that our Police Department filed. This was a robbery attempt as far as I'm concerned."
Latino leaders said the case isn't the first time they've been upset with the state's attorney's handling of crimes against Hispanics in Prince George's County. They complain that there have been several incidents in which Johnson has failed to question Spanish-speaking witnesses.
"There has been a trend in the state's attorney's office of not interviewing Hispanics, especially if they don't speak English," said William Stagg, chairman of the Hispanic Advisory Committee of Prince George's County.
Three other Hispanic families whose loved ones were killed or attacked said they were treated unfairly because of their ethnic background.
"There are abuses and prejudices against Hispanics by the state's attorney's office," contended Jose Mendez, who said he lost his wife and young son in a fatal crash involving a Prince George's firefighter. Mendez said that Johnson was careless in the investigation.
But Johnson, who is African-American, fired back yesterday, saying that his office does not discriminate against Hispanics and that he has a record of fairness and promoting diversity.
"Hispanics are treated just like any other group of citizens," he said. "These people who are protesting are not pleased with the results of this investigation, and they want me to find and charge for things that are just not there."
Hispanic leaders offered recommendations yesterday that they said would aid Hispanic victims. They urged Johnson to establish a victims' assistance program; hire Spanish-speaking
personnel; and establish monthly meetings between the state's attorney and Hispanic community leaders.
"We are not asking him [Johnson] to make favors for us," Stagg said. "We are asking him to do his job. These are real people, not statistics, and they should receive equal protection under the law."
Pub Date: 11/13/98