Kin ties cloud murder trial

Child-killings case marked by confusing family testimony

July 17, 2006|By JULIE BYKOWICZ | JULIE BYKOWICZ,SUN REPORTER

Family members are again playing a critical part in the Baltimore retrial of a pair of Mexican immigrants accused of slashing the throats of their three young relatives - and their testimony has again added more mystery to a disturbing crime with no clear motive.

The defendants, Policarpio Espinoza, 24, and Adan Canela, 19, are an uncle and a cousin, respectively, of the slain children. The first trial ended in a hung jury last summer, and some jurors said it was difficult to reach a verdict in part because of confusing testimony by the family.

Either because of a language barrier, genuine misunderstanding or, as prosecutors have sometimes implied, intentional obfuscation, the family's testimony at both trials has seemed less than straightforward. At times, they have given different ages and names for themselves and the children.

Five of the first seven prosecution witnesses in this trial, which began with jury selection June 22, were family members. Testimony resumes today, and at least one more relative is expected to testify: Jesus Espinoza, the younger brother of Adan Canela and the final person to take the stand last time. A defense witness, Jesus said Adan was home in Baltimore County about the time of the killings.

The children's parents have steadfastly said they do not believe Espinoza and Canela are guilty, and prosecutors, through their questioning of the family, have raised suspicions during both trials that more of the children's relatives might have been involved in the brutal crime.

"This is a family murder," Assistant State's Attorney Sharon R. Holback told jurors in her July 1 opening statement for the second trial. "This is family killing family. They are not going to tell you why their children suffered and died."

Lucero Espinoza, 8, her brother, Ricardo Espinoza, 9, and their male cousin, Alexis Espejo Quezada, 10, were beaten and slashed in the bedrooms of their family's Northwest Baltimore apartment hours after school let out May 27, 2004. All were nearly decapitated; the boys also were strangled.

The defendants and at least 10 of their relatives, including the victims and their mothers, immigrated illegally to Baltimore from a small village in Veracruz, Mexico. Spanish-language interpreters have been present throughout all court proceedings.

The Sun has reviewed official court videotapes in addition to attending parts of the trial.

The first witness in the retrial was Alexis' mother, Maria Andrea Espejo Quezada. She said that Canela had "wanted to have his way with me" but that she never felt threatened by him.

Answering questions from defense attorneys, Maria Andrea spoke briefly about her estranged husband, Alexis' father, whom she described as a lawyer in Mexico. She said he had never threatened her.

The mother of the slain brother and sister, Noemi "Mimi" Quezada, was the next family member to be called to the stand, on July 5. Noemi, Maria Andrea's aunt, had presented a different view of Maria Andrea's husband.

On Noemi's second day of testimony, Nicholas Panteleakis, who represents Espinoza, asked whether she knew of a "problem" between Maria Andrea and her husband.

Noemi answered: "If you want me to do that, I'll say it to the judge, but I don't want to say it out loud. I don't want to say it out in public."

Circuit Judge David B. Mitchell dismissed the jurors and held a bench conference. She said she was reluctant to speak publicly about her suspicions because she was afraid of repercussions.

"I don't want anything ever to happen to me again. I still have a daughter, and as you can imagine, she means everything to me."

She continued: "I have - I have always had - a suspicion about my niece's husband."

Noemi said that while Maria Andrea lived in Mexico in 2003, the two women had a telephone conversation about a threat the husband had made if Maria Andrea and her son came to the United States.

"He told her, `You're going to remember me, and you're going to cry tears of blood," Noemi told the judge. "And we have."

But jurors did not hear that specific threat because the judge ruled it inadmissible. However, he did allow Noemi to speak broadly about the conversation.

Both mothers again testified to being worried - but for no specific reason, they said - the day of the murders. Noemi prayed to the patron saint of lost causes and Maria Andrea nervously smoked a cigarette about an hour before they discovered the children's bodies, according to their testimony.

Ricardo Espinoza, Mimi's husband and the father of the slain brother and sister, testified that he was the first person to enter the apartment and find the dead children. He said he picked up his little girl and felt a very weak pulse. And he described a frantic few moments when he could not find his son before finding his body wrapped in sheets.

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