Slashing case goes to jury

Deliberations to begin today in 2004 killings of three children


For the second time, a Baltimore jury has been asked to make sense of the May 2004 slashing deaths of three Mexican immigrant children, a brutal crime with no clear motive.

Jurors listened to closing arguments yesterday and will begin deliberations this morning. The closing arguments spanned about four hours and were largely a predictable recap - though some new theories were sprinkled throughout.

Policarpio Espinoza, 24, and Adan Canela, 19, are charged with first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. Their first trial ended last summer in a hung jury; this trial began June 22 and included 21 days of testimony.

The two are accused of killing Lucero Espinoza, 8; her brother Ricardo Espinoza, 9; and their male cousin Alexis Espejo Quezada, 10. Espinoza is an uncle of Lucero and Ricardo, and Canela is a cousin.

Because the defendants, victims and many of their relatives immigrated illegally from Veracruz, Mexico, there are no documents showing their real names, ages or relationships - adding another layer of mystery to a confusing case.

Assistant State's Attorney Sharon R. Holback, who gave the state's final closing argument, told jurors it was the "most complicated evidence" she'd ever presented in her two decades as a prosecutor.

In both trials, the main pieces of evidence to emerge were several bloodstained articles of clothing attributed to the defendants.

Prosecutors said DNA tests showed the men wore blue jeans with the children's blood on them, though defense attorneys said close family ties among the defendants, victims and others rendered the tests inaccurate.

Assistant State's Attorney Tony N. Garcia, who gave the first closing argument, urged jurors to apply "good old-fashioned common sense" to the complicated DNA evidence. Both defense attorneys called the evidence "flawed" and "incomplete."

In her closing, Holback referenced others who may have been involved in the crime, though no one but Canela and Espinoza has been charged.

Guadalupe Juarez Hernandez, the stepmother of the younger defendant, could have coordinated the killings in the numerous phone calls she exchanged with Espinoza the day of the crime, Holback said.

Hernandez may have been jealous of Maria Andrea Espejo Quezada, the mother of one of the children, prosecutors said.

In the previous trial, prosecutors focused on Victor Espinoza Perez, Hernandez's husband and Canela's father, as the potential coordinator.

Yesterday, Holback dropped a potential bombshell concerning Perez: He may not be Canela's father.

She mentioned that possibility at least twice in her closing, saying at one point: "Who is Adan Canela? Victor is not his father. What's his connection to Guadalupe? Why is he doing her business?"

Canela's defense attorneys said prosecutors did not elicit testimony concerning Canela's paternity during the trial, and they said they were surprised the topic emerged in closing arguments.

"Victor is definitely Adan's father," James N. Rhodes, one of Canela's attorneys, said after court.

Defense attorneys also floated new theories in the closing arguments.

Nicholas Panteleakis, who represents Espinoza, said that perhaps the blood on the blue jeans was not that of the children. Instead, he said, some of their DNA could have been left on the jeans while the children played with the defendants another time.

Holback dismissed that as baseless in her rebuttal argument.

Throughout this trial - and unlike the previous one - Rhodes has tried to separate Canela from Espinoza, even suggesting to jurors in his opening statement and closing argument that perhaps Espinoza is guilty.

Jurors did not hear a taped statement to police that links the two defendants. Like last time, a judge ruled it inadmissible because Espinoza, who essentially accused Canela of the crime, cannot be compelled to testify at his own trial.

Part of the statement - Espinoza telling police he drove to the children's apartment the afternoon they were killed but never got out of his car - was read to jurors.

The redacted version confused some jurors at the previous trial. One said afterward that she could not understand why police did not question Espinoza about Canela. (They did, but that part was inadmissible.)

This trial was slightly shorter than the pervious one, which included five weeks of testimony. That jury deliberated for 10 days before a judge declared a mistrial Aug. 30 because of a hung jury.

Jurors reported being split 6-6 on whether to convict Canela and 8-4 in favor of convicting Espinoza.

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