2 men get life sentences for killing 3 children

One defendant, family claim innocence at hearing

September 22, 2006|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,sun reporter

Ignoring the cries of innocence from one of the two relatives convicted of slashing and strangling three children, a Baltimore judge sentenced the men yesterday to two consecutive life sentences without parole and an additional 30 years in prison for crimes that he said stunned the city.

Policarpio Espinoza, 24, and Adan Canela, 19, were found guilty by a jury last month of attacking Lucero Espinoza, 8; her brother, Ricardo Espinoza, 9; and their male cousin Alexis Espejo Quezada, 10, though no clear motive was presented at trial.

Canela, speaking in court, put his hands over his face as his knees buckled and he wept during a 20-second statement. He is the cousin of the slain children.

"I didn't do any of this," Canela said. "I, too, had dreams, and they've been taken away from me. I loved my cousins very much and everybody in my family. I would have given my life for them."

Espinoza, the children's uncle, did not say anything.

Circuit Court Judge David B. Mitchell said the brutality of the crimes merited severe punishment. He said the killings were committed in a manner to send a message and that he believes other family members knew the killings were going to happen.

"The court is convinced that there are some members of this community who knew of these crimes in advance and did not intercede," Mitchell said. "These crimes represent the most cold-blooded and heart-wrenching acts I've ever had the displeasure to witness."

An air of innuendo and secrecy that has clouded this case since the killings in May 2004 continued in court yesterday. The victims, defendants and relatives immigrated illegally from Veracruz, Mexico, and the family has been largely uncooperative with authorities throughout, frustrating the case and a search for a motive.

Police and prosecutors think additional people played a role in the crimes. One theory that has been presented in court by prosecutors is that Guadalupe Juarez Hernandez, the stepmother of the younger defendant, coordinated the killings in the many phone calls she exchanged with Espinoza the day of the murders.

Prosecutors also say that Hernandez might have been jealous of Maria Andrea Espejo Quezada, the mother of the 10-year-old, over an encounter with her husband.

The highly publicized case went through two trials that spanned more than a year. The first trial ended in August 2005 with a hung jury after 10 days of deliberations. The more recent trial began in June and included 21 days of testimony.

Yesterday's hearing was the final chance for family members to speak in court, and Victor Espinoza Perez, who is viewed as the family's patriarch, took advantage.

Perez, Canela's father and Espinoza's brother, yelled that Quezada knew who killed the children. Addressing the court on behalf of his son, he became animated and frequently waved his hands. Quezada, who gave a victim's impact statement earlier, was in court.

"Andrea knows who killed the children," Perez said through an interpreter. "I want them to say how much they paid her to come here. They paid for her hotel, for her food." He was referring to the men who he believes killed the children.

Noemi "Mimi" Espinoza Quezada, mother of Lucero and Ricardo, said in court that the wrong men are going to jail. Quezada has stood by Canela and Espinoza through both trials.

Assistant State's Attorney Sharon R. Holback asked Quezada to describe the impact the loss of her children has had on her life, but Quezada instead defended Canela and Espinoza.

"I'm not happy with what is being done with the justice being served," Quezada said through an interpreter. "It seems to me that what is being done is unfair. I don't think I was shown the evidence. I don't see why they have to pay for others' sins."

Ricardo Espinoza Perez, Noemi Quezada's husband, father of two of the children and brother of Policarpio Espinoza, said his relationship with the defendants had always been good. Canela's lawyer, James N. Rhodes, asked whether he thought Canela and Espinoza were responsible for the deaths of his children. Perez said, "I don't think so."

Another cousin and a nephew spoke on behalf of Espinoza, calling him a great person, a warm uncle and someone who was good with the children.

About half a dozen jurors who attending the hearing remained resolute in their verdict. The jurors seemed to be more upset with the request of Espinoza's defense attorney, Nicholas Panteleakis. Panteleakis began the hearing asking for a new trial, saying that trying both men at the same time hindered his client's case. Panteleakis also submitted articles in The Sun and the Washington Times that he said show jury misconduct in the case.

One juror had said that he did not want this case to end in a mistrial like the first one, indicating that he was predisposed to a verdict of guilty. Panteleakis highlighted another juror's negative comment regarding Espinoza's not testifying in court.

Mitchell declined the request.

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