A jury yesterday convicted two MS-13 gang members in the 2003 killing of a 17-year-old pregnant gang member in western Virginia.
After nearly four days of deliberations, the jury acquitted two other MS-13 gang members of the July 13, 2003, stabbing death of Brenda Paz.
One of those acquitted was Denis Rivera, who prosecutors argued masterminded Miss Paz’s murder. Miss Paz was to have testified at another murder trial for Rivera, who was in jail at the time of her death.
The same jury, made up of five women and seven men, on Monday will return to U.S. District Court in Alexandria to begin the penalty phase of the trial for Ismael J. Cisneros, 26, and Oscar A. Grande, 22. Both men could face the death penalty.
Defense attorneys yesterday were elated that the trial ended with the acquittal of Rivera, 22, and Oscar Garcia-Orellana, 32, the only defendant to testify during the trial.
“We are just overjoyed and excited about the verdict,” said Frank Salvato, attorney for Garcia-Orellana.
Garcia-Orellana still faces immigration charges, which could result in deportation to his native El Salvador.
Deportation could be dangerous for MS-13 gang members, because MS-13 gangs assassinate those members who return to El Salvador, said Alex Levay, an attorney who also represented Garcia-Orellana.
“This is not a victory for MS-13,” Mr. Levay said.
Rivera is serving life in prison after being convicted in the murder case in which Miss Paz was supposed to testify.
U.S. Attorney Paul J. McNulty said the guilty verdicts showed a major advance in a battle against crimes committed by gangs, especially MS-13.
MS-13 is also known as Mara Salvatrucha and is the largest and most violent gang in Northern Virginia.
“Gang violence in Northern Virginia is becoming one of our most pressing crime problems,” Mr. McNulty said. “Our law-enforcement agencies are united in their commitment to defeat this threat of ruthless violence in our community.”
None of the men’s friends or relatives were in court when the verdicts were announced yesterday afternoon.
Garcia-Orellana’s mother and girlfriend had testified in his behalf.
Mr. Levay said he immediately called Garcia-Orellana’s mother and left a message.
Although there were nearly 10,000 pages of discovery, much of the federal government’s case was based on 25 recorded telephone calls from Rivera from jail to MS-13 members.
Prosecutors argued that the calls showed that Rivera ordered Miss Paz’s murder because she was talking to police.
Miss Paz had been a gang member since she was about 12 years old in Los Angeles. She had been in a witness-protection program in Virginia in 2002.
Miss Paz was stabbed to death July 13, 2003, about a month after she voluntarily left a federal witness-protection program.
Cisneros confessed that Miss Paz was stabbed 16 times on the banks of the northern fork of the Shenandoah River, where fishermen found her body July 17, 2003. Cisneros also said Garcia-Orellana held Miss Paz by the neck while she was stabbed.
Garcia-Orellana testified he was not aware of the murder plot until he heard Miss Paz scream and saw the other two gang members stabbing her.
“He said the same thing from day one,” Mr. Salvato said.
Some of the telephone calls and other evidence indicated that Miss Paz’s slaying had been ordered by other MS-13 gang leaders in the United States, especially in Texas, where one of her former boyfriends is serving a life sentence for murder.
Rivera’s attorneys argued that Rivera had been talking privately with police and had told them that Miss Paz left the witness-protection program and was returning to Virginia.
“Denis’ position was that he was never involved in the plot,” his attorney, Jerome Aquino, said. “He was not the person who ordered the killing of Miss Paz.”
The recorded telephone calls, many of them in Spanish, were filled with gang code words and referred to members only by their nicknames.
“Gato,” which means “cat” in Spanish, was a nickname frequently used, and Garcia-Orellana goes by that nickname.
But private investigator John McAvoy testified that two other gang members had the same nickname and that the recorded “Gato” voice was different from that of Garcia-Orellana.
The telephone calls were translated into English, and copies were given to the jury, which included three members who speak Spanish.