Murder in Mexico might muddy local case


February 26, 2010|By Peter Hermann |

It seems impossible, but the case involving two men convicted in the grisly killings of their three young relatives six years ago in Northwest Baltimore just got more complicated.

Word reached authorities this week that Victor Espinoza Perez, the patriarch of the extended family from Veracruz, Mexico, was shot and killed two days after Christmas and that in January police there arrested his 36-year-old wife, Guadalupe Juarez Hernandez, and charged her with hiring her ex-lover for $25,000 to carry out the hit on her husband.

One witness dead, another jailed, and the rest deported and scattered over Mexico - that could complicate the case should the Maryland Court of Special Appeals overturn the 2005 convictions of Policarpio Espinoza, Victor Espinoza's younger brother and cousin of the dead children, and Adan Canela, the victims' uncle.

Both men are serving life sentences in Maryland, but the state's second-highest court is trying to decide whether the trial judge's failure to turn over jury notes to attorneys in the defendants' second trial (the first ended in a hung jury) means the convictions should be thrown out. The panel has been reviewing the case since January 2009.

Defense attorneys do not believe that Espinoza was killed because of his connection to the case. He testified but only offered a timeline of events corroborated by others. But defense lawyers say his death helps advance their theory - proposed but not proved at trial - that Juarez Hernandez orchestrated the brutal slayings as part of an elaborate and sordid plot to avenge her husband's affairs by killing his two children from a previous marriage and his nephew.

Juarez Hernandez and Espinoza exchanged a flurry of cell phone calls the day before the killings, and prosecutors cryptically referred to "some secret buried deep in the family." But a clear motive never emerged, despite two lengthy trials involving Spanish-language interpreters and in which more than 300 pieces of evidence was presented. Many relatives didn't speak English, most were here illegally and more than a few didn't cooperate with police. And those who did, frequently changed their stories.

The slayings of Lucero Espinoza, 8, her brother Ricardo Espinoza, 9, and cousin Alexis Espejo Quezada, 10 - students at Cross Country Elementary School - stunned the city because of the gruesome nature of the attack targeting innocent children. Authorities had many theories, from an unrequited love to the illegal transporting of workers from Mexico. None was ever proved.

Policarpio Espinoza's trial attorney, Nicholas Panteleakis, said Thursday that the killing in Mexico could help clarify the motive in the Baltimore case and could help the defense should there be another trial by raising questions about the guilt of his client and whether anyone else was involved.

He said Guadalupe implicated Policarpio in the slayings "more than anyone else" in the first trial but then wavered in her testimony in the second trial, "making it seem like she was trying to throw the attention onto other people by making things jumbled."

Of the killing in Mexico, Panteleakis said, "I don't think it had anything to do with the trial here, but it certainly complicates things."

Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the city state's attorney's office, said that should a third trial be necessary, the testimony of the jailed woman and her dead husband "are recorded and preserved." She declined to comment on whether the killing sheds any new light on motive in the Baltimore case.

Mexican news media have reported extensively on the shooting of Espinoza, who was killed in the driveway of his home Dec. 27.

The news accounts say Juarez Hernandez confessed to hiring a woodworker - who is an ex-police officer, ex-soldier and ex-convict - to kill her husband because he beat and cheated on her. The media quoted Mexican police saying the alleged hit man, who also is in custody, had personal reasons for killing Espinoza, who worked as a municipal bus driver and had once humiliated the suspect because he refused to pick him up at a stop.

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