2nd trial to start in child killings

2 accused of slashing throats of 3 young relatives

first proceeding ended in a hung jury

June 22, 2006|By JULIE BYKOWICZ | JULIE BYKOWICZ,SUN REPORTER

A second trial begins today in Baltimore Circuit Court for two Mexican immigrants accused of slashing the throats of three young relatives - a case with no clear motive that ended its first trial 10 months ago in a hung jury.

Defense attorneys for Policarpio Espinoza, 24, and Adan Canela, 19, expect this trial to proceed much differently, with the younger suspect now blaming the older one in the killings.

"This time around, we're going to concentrate a lot more on showing the lack of proof against Adan and the extreme amount of evidence that relates to Policarpio," Canela's attorney, James Rhodes, said yesterday.

Espinoza's attorney, Nicholas Panteleakis, said he had anticipated such a shift. Panteleakis said his new approach will be to more pointedly discredit DNA evidence and to more strongly assert that Baltimore police arrested the wrong men.

"This is a trial that's all about manipulation," Panteleakis said, noting what he said are prosecution efforts to make DNA tied to Espinoza seem more conclusive than he believes it is.

Assistant State's Attorney Sharon R. Holback declined to comment yesterday, and Joseph Sviatko, a spokesman for the city state's attorney's office, said prosecutors "won't discuss trial strategy ahead of a trial."

All of the attorneys were involved in the first trial, which began in July and lasted nearly two months, with five weeks of testimony and 300 pieces of evidence.

Circuit Judge Thomas Ward declared a mistrial Aug. 30, after 10 days of deliberations. Jurors reported being split 6-6 on whether to convict Canela and 8-4 in favor of convicting Espinoza.

Retired Circuit Judge David B. Mitchell will preside over the re-trial. Today, the judge likely will hear pretrial motions. Next will come days of jury selection, during which the attorneys will sift through a jury pool of at least 250 Baltimore residents to find people who have not drawn conclusions about the high-profile case.

The killings May 27, 2004, in a Northwest Baltimore apartment stunned the city.

Hours after their elementary school let out for the day, Lucero Espinoza, 8, her brother, Ricardo Espinoza, 9, and their male cousin, Alexis Espejo Quezada, 10, were beaten and slashed in their bedrooms. All were nearly decapitated; the boys were strangled.

Espinoza and Canela, an uncle and cousin of the children, respectively, were quickly considered suspects. The two came to the crime scene to comfort their grieving relatives, and a neighbor told police she had spotted them acting suspiciously outside the children's apartment days earlier.

Espinoza and Canela, like most of the victims' and defendants' relatives, are illegal immigrants from Mexico who speak little English.

Espinoza gave police a statement saying he and his cousin had driven to the children's apartment that afternoon but that Canela had gone inside alone.

Because of evidence rules against self-incrimination and the right to confront one's accuser, prosecutors were not able to tell jurors that Espinoza implicated Canela, rendering the statement confusing to some jurors.

"It seemed so weird for police not to ask about Adan," juror Keith Brown said in an interview days after the trial. "We couldn't figure out what was going on with that statement."

Prosecutors also presented DNA evidence that they said linked the pair to the children's deaths. Two pairs of blue jeans stained with the children's blood, one containing skin cells consistent with Espinoza and one with skin cells consistent with Canela, were found at the defendants' home.

But defense attorneys questioned - as did some jurors - why a police forensic scientist used a DNA vacuum that he had invented rather than one more widely used.

Panteleakis, who paired with attorney Timothy M. Dixon during the first trial but will work alone this time, said he plans to focus on that point.

Some jurors also said they believed that the DNA, the timeline of the day of the crime and the lack of a clear motive did not add up to convictions.

Juror Mike Johnson said at the time: "Some things just did not seem right." Juror Brown said: "It was a big puzzle and a lot of missing pieces."

julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

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