Relatives guilty of killing children

2nd jury reaches murder verdict

August 09, 2006|By JULIE BYKOWICZ AND CHRIS YAKAITIS | JULIE BYKOWICZ AND CHRIS YAKAITIS,SUN REPORTERS

Two years - and two trials - after three Mexican children were slashed and strangled in Northwest Baltimore, a city jury convicted yesterday the uncle and cousin accused of killing them.

Policarpio Espinoza, 24, and Adan Canela, 19, were each found guilty of three counts of conspiracy to commit murder, two counts of first-degree murder and a count of second-degree murder.

The two showed no emotion as the jury forewoman announced the verdicts that found them responsible for the May 2004 deaths of Lucero Espinoza, 8; her brother, Ricardo Espinoza, 9; and their male cousin, Alexis Espejo Quezada, 10.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions gave an incorrect name for the school attended by three young relatives who were later killed in their home in 2004. They attended Cross Country Elementary School.
The Sun regrets the errors.

"No matter where you come from, everyone deserves justice," said Christopher Lewis, Juror No. 10. "These kids did nothing. This was just terrible."

The victims, the defendants and their relatives immigrated illegally from Veracruz, Mexico. Either out of fear, cultural differences or intentional obfuscation, family members did not cooperate with the police investigation.

The result was a confusing murder case with no clear motive. The first trial ended about a year ago in a hung jury when 10 days of deliberations produced no consensus.

Jurors in this trial, which began June 22 and ended on the fourth day of deliberations, said afterward that they were adamant about reaching a verdict.

They said the single second-degree murder conviction for each defendant was a compromise brokered with the lone juror who was not convinced of premeditation, a required element of first-degree murder.

And jurors said they looked past the mystery motive - a hang-up for the last jury - and focused on the evidence, chiefly DNA consistent with the defendants' genetic material on clothing stained with the children's blood.

Gregory Hooker, Juror No. 7, said jurors quickly agreed not to try to "rationalize the irrational."

"We just have to take it for what it is," he said. "It's a mass murder by psychopaths."

Assistant State's Attorney Sharon R. Holback, a prosecutor for 20 years, said it was the most complicated case she had ever presented. She said "something horrible happened in the family" to motivate the killings, but because relatives are frightened, that cause might never be known.

"What we know for sure is that these defendants killed these children in a brutal and horrific manner that shocked the consciences of every single member of the community," she said.

On May 27, 2004, after Cross Keys Elementary School let out for the day, Lucero, Ricardo and Alexis went home to their family's Fallstaff apartment. Their parents were not there.

About 4:30 p.m., police and prosecutors believe, the children were beaten and slashed in their bedrooms. All were nearly decapitated; the boys were strangled. Lucero had some of her brother's skin under her nails, showing she might have fought to save his life.

Espinoza and Canela went to the crime scene to comfort their grieving relatives, and a neighbor told police she had noticed them acting suspiciously outside the family's apartment days earlier.

At police headquarters that night, Canela refused to talk, saying only "I don't know [expletive]." Espinoza gave a taped statement saying he and his nephew had driven to the apartment that afternoon but that Canela had gone inside alone.

Within hours, they were under arrest.

Defense attorneys said yesterday that their clients did not get a fair trial and promised appeals.

"Mr. Canela is innocent of these charges," said James N. Rhodes, speaking first at a series of news conferences after the verdicts were announced.

"I truly believe an innocent man was convicted today," said Nicholas Panteleakis, Espinoza's attorney. "I truly believe that the evidence was not strong, that it was circumstantial and manipulative."

Because of evidence rules against self-incrimination and the right to confront one's accuser, jurors did not learn that Espinoza had implicated Canela. They knew only that Espinoza had said he drove to the crime scene and waited outside.

Panteleakis said this made the statement unfair. "Essentially Policarpio had one hand tied behind his back before this fight even started," he said.

At this trial, unlike the previous one, Canela's attorneys tried to lay blame on Espinoza. Rhodes even pointed out in his opening statement and closing argument how strong the evidence against Espinoza was.

Jurors filed into the courtroom about 11 a.m. yesterday. The lengthy verdict sheets seemed to confuse the jury forewoman, which prompted Circuit Judge David B. Mitchell to twice excuse the jurors so they could make sure they were announcing the correct verdicts.

It was almost noon when the verdicts became official. Jurors said later there was no doubt of the verdicts; it was the paperwork that caused the trouble.

James Drake, Juror No. 3, said he was "comfortable" with the outcome.

On top of the evidence, Drake said, the defendants' demeanor throughout the trial convinced him of their guilt. "They were just so cold, like nothing was happening," he said.

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