Triple murder case ends in a mistrial

Too much confusion, too little proof, jury says

`The fight is not over'

Suspects still being held in deaths of 3 children

August 31, 2005|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

The summer-long trial of two Mexican immigrants accused of slashing the throats of three young relatives ended without a verdict yesterday, with a divided Baltimore jury saying there was too much confusion -- and not enough evidence -- to agree on guilt or innocence.

Jurors heard five weeks of testimony. They then deliberated for 10 days the fates of Policarpio Espinoza and Adan Canela, who are charged with three counts of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder in the deaths last year of an 8-year-old girl, her 9-year-old brother and their 10-year-old male cousin.

Circuit Judge Thomas Ward declared a mistrial after the jury forewoman said for the second consecutive day that jurors had no hope of reaching a unanimous decision.

Prosecutors said they would ask for a new trial date today. The suspects remain in custody, held without bail.

The gruesome killings stunned a city that at times seems numb to death, and the lengthy investigation and trial that followed proved challenging on many fronts.

It included complicated DNA evidence, hundreds of exhibits, uncooperative relatives, accusations of police misconduct and the inability of prosecutors to articulate a motive.

Some jurors said yesterday that they don't believe they heard the whole truth about what happened last year in the children's Northwest Baltimore apartment -- and who was behind the slayings.

One juror pointed to a lack of motive as a stumbling block, while others said questionable police work and unclear DNA evidence entered discussions in the jury room. The four jurors who spoke about deliberations all had an unsettled feeling that permeated the trial.

`A big puzzle'

"It was a big puzzle and a lot of missing pieces," said juror Keith Brown, 41, a machine operator who said he voted to convict Espinoza and acquit Canela.

"Some things just did not seem right," said Mike Johnson, a 46-year-old juror in the case who declined to say how he voted.

The 12-member jury was deadlocked 6-6 on Canela throughout deliberations and ended at 8-4 in favor of convicting Espinoza, according to several jurors. The jury never discussed convicting either suspect of first-degree murder, only the conspiracy charges, they said.

Espinoza, 23, and Canela, 18, are accused of beating and nearly decapitating Lucero Espinoza, her brother, Ricardo Espinoza, and their male cousin, Alexis Espejo Quezada. The boys also were strangled.

The children were slain May 27 last year in their family's apartment in Fallstaff, shortly after they arrived home from elementary school.

Prosecutors vowed yesterday to try again to convict the defendants.

"We will continue to fight for justice," said Assistant State's Attorney Tony N. Garcia. "This is merely one round, but the fight is not over."

Defense attorneys for Espinoza and Canela said prosecutors had been counting on the jury to convict based on their emotions and ignore what they said was a "lack of evidence" against their clients.

"This is the kind of case that, when you take the emotions out of it, there just isn't a lot of evidence there," said Timothy M. Dixon, one of Espinoza's attorneys.

James Rhodes, an attorney for Canela, said "it would be in the interest of justice" for prosecutors to try the men separately next time around.

"I strenuously believe that there's much less evidence on Adan," he said. "There's no way he could be convicted if he was tried separately from Policarpio." The trial included a statement that Espinoza gave to police putting him near the crime scene and circumstantial evidence from two neighbors who said they saw the men acting strangely near the apartment in the days before the killings.

Much of the prosecution's case hinged on DNA evidence, which defense attorneys said was weakened because the defendants are so closely related to the victims.

Still, prosecutors presented an expert who testified that two pairs of blue jeans were stained with the children's blood. One pair, which contained DNA consistent with Espinoza's, was found in the bedroom of the Baltimore County home where the defendants lived. DNA consistent with Canela's was inside the other pair, which were removed from a car the defendants used.

Two bloody gloves, both of which had Espinoza's DNA and one possibly also with Canela's, also were recovered from the car.

Defense attorneys raised the issue of what they said was shoddy police work, even police misconduct. Dixon and Rhodes sharply questioned a Baltimore police forensic scientist who used a vacuum collection device that he had invented to suction debris, such as skin cells, from inside the bloody gloves and bloody pairs of jeans.

Police also allowed about two dozen people to walk through the crime scene, said Dixon, a former police lieutenant.

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