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Maryland's highest court overturned the convictions of two men who were found guilty of the murders of three children in a Northwest Baltimore apartment seven years ago, ruling Friday that the trial judge made mistakes that prevented the defendants from receiving a fair trial.
In a 4-3 decision, the Court of Appeals said that Baltimore Circuit Judge David B. Mitchell had failed to disclose to attorneys the contents of five "substantive" notes from jurors in the course of the defendants' second trial in 2006. Their first trial ended in a hung jury.
The decision reopened a case whose gruesome nature and raw violence horrified the city, raising the possibility that justice will not come for the three elementary school students who were nearly decapitated by their attackers.
Defense lawyers argued that had they known what the notes said, they might have altered their trial strategy. Jurors had sent a total of 28 notes to the judge during the two-month trial in Baltimore Circuit Court.
Policarpio Espinoza Perez and Adan Canela were convicted of slashing the throats of three young relatives on May 27, 2004. The men are serving life sentences, and city prosecutors said Friday they had not decided whether to try the case a third time.
"We will carefully review the court's opinion before determining the next steps taken by our office," said Mark Cheshire, a spokesman for the Baltimore state's attorney office. Neither Sharon Holback, who prosecuted the defendants, nor Patricia C. Jessamy, the state's attorney at the time, could be reached for comment.
Any attempt to try the men again could face considerable obstacles. Most of the witnesses, many of them relatives of both the defendants and the victims, were deported after the second trial or have voluntarily left the country. Some did not cooperate with police during the investigation into the crimes and flatly said in court that Canela and Espinoza were innocent.
If the state decides not to go for a third trial, the men — illegal immigrants from Veracruz, Mexico — are likely to be deported. Defendants generally remain incarcerated until prosecutors decide whether to try them again.
The victims were Lucero Espinoza, 8; her brother, Ricardo Espinoza, 9; and their cousin, Alexis Espejo Quezada, 10. The defendants were questioned several hours after the discovery of the bodies and gave inconsistent statements as to their whereabouts at the time of the children's deaths. In the home the two men shared, police found a pair of blue jeans with what looked like bloodstains. Officers found gloves and another pair of jeans in Policarpio Espinoza's car, all with signs of blood. DNA analysis later linked the items to the murders, for which no motive was ever ascertained.
The defendants each received two consecutive life terms without parole for first-degree murder, a consecutive 30-year sentence for second-degree murder and a concurrent life sentence for three counts of conspiracy to commit murder. The Court of Special Appeals later upheld the convictions, saying that the errors at issue "had no impact whatever on the jury's verdicts." The defense then appealed to the higher panel.
During a hearing before the Maryland Court of Appeals in March, lawyers for the defendants argued that the defense might have adjusted its trial strategy if Mitchell had shared all the jury's questions. But an assistant attorney general countered that the judge's error was harmless, given what she considered strong evidence tying Espinoza and Canela to the murders.
During the course of 2006 trial, Mitchell had allowed the jury to ask questions about substantive topics, well beyond the typical requests for bathroom breaks and other mundane matters — an unusually permissive move. At issue in the appeal were several notes that were the basis of Mitchell's questions to witnesses, although lawyers did not know that at the time, and one in which some jurors asked that Mitchell dismiss another juror they claimed lacked concentration and was "nodding" during testimony.
"Two men's lives are at stake and we believe they deserve a fair trial," the jurors wrote of their colleague. That juror was replaced with no public explanation, although in the ruling issued Friday the appeals panel concluded that the matter did not prejudice the outcome of the trial.
But in a reference to five other notes sent to the judge, the appeals court agreed with the defense's contention that the errors "were hardly harmless," in that they "reflected precise and important substantive concerns the jury had with evidence at the trial." Lawyers working on the case were entitled "to know that the jury had asked these questions so that counsel could use this information about the jury's concerns to adjust their trial strategy" or to pose additional questions to witnesses, the appeals judges said.