Still trying to make sense of children's brutal deaths

July 28, 2006|By JEAN MARBELLA

At this stage of the trial, they are samples, not children. They are DNA, extracted from a bloodstain on a shoe or "debris" from inside a glove.

Lucero Espinoza, the 8-year-old girl who liked to dance, her 9-year-old brother, Ricardo, whom she considered her best friend, and their 10-year-old cousin and constant companion, Alexis Espejo Quezada, are samples 3, 2 and 1 in the trial of the cousin and uncle (samples 7 and 8) accused of killing them two years ago in a Northwest Baltimore apartment.

This is the second time prosecutors have sought justice for the three children, whose brutal deaths horrified a city where many killings barely register. The first time, last summer, ended in a mistrial when jurors couldn't make enough sense of the case to either convict or acquit.

Today, sadly, the case seems no clearer. If ever there was a senseless crime, surely this one is it: Why would anyone kill these three innocent children?

Prosecutors have acknowledged that they have uncovered no motive, and instead will highlight the forensic evidence. "We might not have motive," Assistant State's Attorney Sharon R. Holback said in her opening statement four weeks ago, "but we sure as heck have DNA."

Maybe that will be enough.

But whether you're a juror or just a casual observer in the courtroom, a trial is a story. There's this expectation that you will find out what happened - and how and why. You're looking for a scenario, a context, a framework that at least begins to explain the inexplicable.

That's why this case is so frustrating: It's missing a narrative, says Neil Vidmar, a Duke law professor to whom I sent some of The Sun's articles on last summer's mistrial.

"The prosecution has to have a reasonable theory," says Vidmar, who has studied jury behavior for more than 30 years. "I don't want to second-guess the prosecutors, but it would still seem to me it's a very heavy burden on them to provide a motive. The DNA evidence might not be sufficient to sway the jury."

You'd think it would be, what with the popularity of the CSI dramas on TV in which forensics evidence plays the starring role. Quite a switch from, say, the old Perry Mason show when the witness - often a surprise one appearing dramatically at the last moment - was the one who held the key to the mystery.

But DNA evidence is not as straightforward as you'd expect, even in a case like this where an expert testified this week that the chance that the DNA he identified as coming from one of the victims had come from someone else was one in 1.77 quadrillion - in other words, far more than the number of people who live on the planet.

That staggering level of certainty, though, seems less so when you realize that because everyone in this case is related - the defendants, Policarpio Espinoza and Adan Canela, are the uncle and cousin, respectively, of two of the victims, Lucero and Ricardo Espinoza - they share certain amounts of DNA. The prosecution perhaps tried to address that, by asking an expert to explain why DNA that he said came from Lucero and Ricardo couldn't have come instead from their father, with whom they naturally share DNA.

The government may not have a choice in focusing on forensics over witness testimony - the victims' relatives have said they don't believe the defendants killed the children, and no one has provided the answer to the natural question: If not them, then who?

So now, Round 2. The trial is, as you'd expect, generating less interest than last year's proceedings. On one morning this week, a defense attorney's father, a TV reporter, a few associates of the prosecutors and I spread ourselves out through the mostly empty rows of seats.

There's a slight murmur from the corner where two Spanish-language interpreters take turns translating everything the judge, lawyers and witnesses said into a microphone linked to earpieces worn by the two defendants, who speak little English.

For clarity's sake, everyone refers to the victims, defendants and their relatives by their first names. That lends an oddly familiar cast to the proceedings, but perhaps an appropriate one, given the tangled web of a case in which the mother of two victims is the aunt of the mother of the third - and the sister-in-law of one defendant.

It's complicated, but by now familiar, from last year's trial. It is a different jury this time, and a different judge, but whether that will result in a different outcome remains to be seen.

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