- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 14, 2005

A jury yesterday spared the lives of two members of the MS-13 street gang who murdered a fellow gang member for cooperating with police, sentencing the pair to life in prison and rejecting prosecutors’ call for death sentences.

The jury in its third day of deliberations told U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee that it could not reach unanimous verdicts on the fates of Oscar Antonio Grande, 22, and Ismael Juarez Cisneros, 26.

The jury’s failure to reach a unanimous verdict means that both will receive life in prison when they are formally sentenced in U.S. District Court in Alexandria.

Grande and Cisneros were convicted for the July 2003 murder of Brenda Paz, 17, who was four months pregnant when she died. Her body was found on the banks of the Shenandoah River; she had been lured to rural Shenandoah County on the pretext of a fishing trip.

Miss Paz was slain one night after gang members met in a Fairfax hotel room and voted to kill her for snitching on gang members to police.

Miss Paz had been enrolled in the federal witness protection program but left the program just weeks before she was killed. Trial testimony indicated that Miss Paz never truly severed her ties with the gang while in witness protection, where she was poorly supervised. She called on her old gang members to visit her as she was moved by her handlers from Pennsylvania to Missouri to Minnesota.

The two-month trial provided a glimpse of the inner workings of MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, a gang with roots in El Salvador that has committed a series of crimes throughout Northern Virginia in recent years, including killings and machete attacks.

Dozens of gang members testified at trial, describing a nomadic existence in which large numbers would crowd into motel rooms with money from panhandling and petty crimes, moving on when they were evicted.

Nearly all those who testified said they came to view the gang as their true family. Defense attorneys for Cisneros and Grande argued that their clients were especially susceptible to the gang lifestyle because of the abuse each suffered as a child.

Jurors seemingly gave weight to the defense’s arguments. On verdict forms, 11 of the 12 jurors said the fact that Grande had come to view MS-13 “as a family to whom he owed the same degree of loyalty as … a traditional family” was a mitigating factor, arguing in favor of a life sentence rather than death.

All 12 jurors agreed that Cisneros “obtained a sense of acceptance and belonging from his involvement in MS-13.”

Nina Ginsberg, one of Cisneros’ attorneys, said it would have been difficult for jurors to ignore the horrific abuse he endured while growing up in Mexico City, where his father beat him and his siblings on an almost daily basis, once throwing Cisneros’ 4-month-old sister against a wall and putting her in a hospital for four months. Cisneros also suffered sexual abuse at the hands of older cousins.

“The way he grew up shouldn’t have happened to a dog,” Miss Ginsberg said.

Prosecutors had argued that the murder of a federal witness was a strike at the very heart of the criminal justice system, deserving of the ultimate punishment.

They also argued that Cisneros and Grande were particularly cruel in their killing of Miss Paz. The two abused Miss Paz’s trust in them to lure her to her death. Grande had an intimate relationship with Miss Paz and slept with her the night before her death, and Cisneros also had been friends with her.

Cisneros had suggested the gang wait until Miss Paz gave birth to her child before killing her, but he still agreed to participate in her murder when the gang decided not to wait.

U.S. Attorney Paul McNulty said in a statement, “While we believe the death penalty was appropriate punishment, we are confident that justice has been well-served in this case. These murderers will spend the rest of their lives behind bars, and gang members now know the murder of witnesses will be severely punished.”

Prosecutors charged two others in Miss Paz’s death, but last month the jury acquitted on all charges Oscar Garcia-Orellana, 32, and Denis Rivera, 22, whom prosecutors said had masterminded Miss Paz’s killing from his jail cell.

Miss Paz was to have testified against Rivera in a different murder case; Rivera was convicted in that case and sentenced to life in prison.

Shortly after Garcia-Orellana was acquitted, prosecutors charged him with illegal possession of ammunition as an illegal alien, a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison. His attorney says the government is engaging in vindictive prosecution.

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