Complex trial stirs jurors' questions

Frequent notes during murder case show high level of attentiveness

Men accused of killing 3 children

July 25, 2005|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

Scrawled on scraps of notebook paper, the questions have flowed from jurors in the Baltimore trial of two men charged with slashing the throats of three young relatives.

Today is Day 12 of testimony in the case against Policarpio Espinoza and Adan Canela, and so far jurors have passed more than two dozen notes to the judge - a number that other judges say is higher than usual and shows they're paying attention to the complicated case.

Espinoza, 23, and his nephew, Canela, 18, face three counts of first-degree murder and conspiracy charges in the deaths of an 8-year-old girl, her 9-year-old brother and their 10-year-old male cousin. The children's bodies were found nearly decapitated May 27, 2004, in a Northwest Baltimore apartment.

Twelve jurors and five alternates are listening to the evidence in a trial that likely will go on into next month. In addition to their note-taking and facial expressions, the jurors' notes provide a glimpse into how they view the high-profile case.

"Detective Massey repeatedly states they could leave if they had asked. Did he tell them that?" reads Question No. 11. The jury forewoman passed that note to the judge while Sgt. Darryl Massey, who interviewed Espinoza and Canela hours after the crime, was on the stand.

Jury questions are read by Circuit Judge Thomas Ward and shown to the prosecutors and defense attorneys. Ward sometimes says he has been wondering the same thing and will ask the witness, as he did with Question No. 11. Other times, one of the attorneys will make the inquiry.

Notes pertaining to evidence in the case are stapled to legal paper and become part of the official court file.

Judges say it's their prerogative to encourage or discourage questions from jurors. Ward mentioned on the first day of the case that jurors should pass him a note if they had a question. His comment prompted Question No. 1:

"I just wanted to know what type of questions that I should direct to you?" the jury forewoman wondered in tidy handwriting.

Ward said he'd accept all kinds - but he warned jurors to be patient and allow the lawyers to cover some ground with a witness before they started asking away. Since then, they've passed forward at least 18 questions that pertain to witnesses who have taken the stand.

The judge has asked many of their questions, even one that called for a demonstration.

Detective Irvin Bradley, the lead detective in the case, described in detail the apartment where the children's bodies were found. Police believe the culprit or culprits were let into the apartment by the children and then fled through an elevated dining room window.

In Question No. 5, jurors asked the detective to demonstrate on a courtroom wall just how high off the ground that window is. The judge asked, and Bradley complied.

Judges say some lawyers are annoyed by jurors who try to steal their thunder. But jury questions allow the prosecutors and defense attorneys to get a feel for how the trial is going, says Circuit Judge John C. Themelis.

"The more questions that come in, the more insight the trial lawyers have as to what's in the mind of jurors," says Themelis, a Baltimore Circuit judge for more than 20 years.

In the Espinoza and Canela case, some of the jury questions reflect an effort to keep the trial moving. On Friday, when Espinoza's attorney Timothy M. Dixon had cross-examined a detective for the third day in a row, jurors asked at least three questions that seemed to be aimed at summarizing subtle points the lawyer was trying to make.

Dixon's 15-hour cross-examination of Detective Juan Diaz prompted some jurors to roll their eyes or shake their heads. The lawyer spent about 15 minutes Friday probing whether Diaz's supervisors had approved all of his reports even though they didn't sign them.

Just when Dixon's questions on the topic seemed as if they would never reach an end, the jury decided to give it a try and passed the judge a note.

Did Diaz's supervisors ever tell him "that reports were not approved," a juror wrote in Question No. 21, underlining the word not.

Dixon asked. Diaz answered in the negative. Moving right along.

Some questions also shed light on the cast of characters on the jury. One note last week prompted Ward to chuckle. He summoned the lawyers to the bench, and they, too, began giggling and smiling at the jury. It seems a juror had asked Ward - a stickler for making the most of each day by hearing testimony until about 5 p.m. - if he might show mercy and let them out early Friday. (He did.)

And a revealing note from one juror began this way: "I have seen too many detective shows ... "

Circuit Judge John M. Glynn, who oversees the court's criminal docket, says the number of jury notes is a function of how complicated the case is.

In this case, the victims and defendants are related through a large family of illegal Mexican immigrants who have multiple last names and who do not speak English.

Glynn says notes from jurors show they're awake, they're paying attention and they care.

"My feeling is that we're here to help the jury get to the truth, and permitting them to ask questions can only help," he said. "If they're confused, then their verdict is not going to make any sense."

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