- The Washington Times - Monday, May 23, 2005

Prosecutors in U.S. District Court yesterday began telling jurors why the two MS-13 gang members found guilty of murder should get the death penalty, while defense attorneys argued that the men’s childhoods and backgrounds merited future life, even in prison.

Last week, after a five-week trial, the jury of seven men and five women in Alexandria convicted Ismael J. Cisneros, 26, and Oscar A. Grande, 22, of stabbing and slashing the throat of Brenda Paz, 17, who had been talking with federal and local police.

“There is no justification for this killing,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Patricia Giles. Miss Paz “was alert and conscious when this crime was committed. It was done with premeditation.”

Miss Giles emphasized that Cisneros and Grande were in on the plot to kill Miss Paz and had 90 minutes to reconsider as they took Miss Paz 100 miles to the Shenandoah River under the pretext of going fishing.

“The offense that was done was especially cruel,” Miss Giles said. “Knowing she was pregnant … they showed no remorse.”

Miss Giles also argued that the murder of a federal witness, “a strike at the heart of the criminal justice system,” was another factor in favor of execution.

“Just consider the crime and consider the men,” she said, adding that the two have a criminal history that includes the 1999 stabbing of a 15-year-old boy.

Grande’s attorney, David Baugh, agreed that “there is no justification for this killing. … But has the government proven that he is such a threat that he must die?”

Mr. Baugh emphasized that teenagers join MS-13 cliques and miss out on the upbringing by moral parents.

Also, many MS-13 members who testified during the initial phase of the trial said that the No. 1 rule within the street gang was to refuse cooperation with police, Mr. Baugh said.

“Everyone on the street said she got what she deserved. They still think that,” he said.

The attorney showed photos of Grande, naked from the waist up, revealing tattoos that covered much of his body, which could be seen in court near the neck and cuffs of his shirt. Several tattoos were MS-13 emblems.

“These are influences that brought that [murder] on,” Mr. Baugh said.

Cisneros’ attorney, Nina Ginsberg, described the impoverished childhood, mostly in Mexico, of Cisneros as a reason why his morals were lacking.

“He didn’t control himself. He admitted that he didn’t control himself,” Ms. Ginsberg said. “But also, the life of Ismael Cisneros was a tragedy.”

Cisneros was born when his mother was still a teenager. She married an alcoholic who took the family’s food money, leaving his family hungry, to get more liquor. Cisneros saw his father throw a baby against the wall, Ms. Ginsberg said, and “he himself was beaten on a regular basis.”

Ms. Ginsberg also said Cisneros has been diagnosed with neurological abnormalities that leave him mentally retarded, a conclusion that prosecutors are likely to challenge. The U.S. Supreme Court has forbidden the execution of retarded criminals.

Testimony was cut short yesterday as the court grappled with procedural issues stemming from a Supreme Court ruling. Normally during the sentencing phase of a death penalty trial, the rules of evidence are relaxed to allow hearsay testimony and other evidence that gives a jury a complete understanding of all the issues involved.

But a 2004 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Crawford v. Washington, grants defendants broad protections in their Sixth Amendment right to confront their accusers. U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee ruled that some evidence is permissible to one aspect of the sentencing trial, but otherwise inadmissible.

As a result, the jury will deliberate today on whether the specific crimes are eligible for the death penalty by determining whether the murder was either premeditated or committed in “an especially cruel, depraved or heinous manner.”

Two other defendants were acquitted of the five conspiracy and murder charges. Both Denis Rivera, 21, and Oscar Garcia-Orellana remain in jail on other convictions. Rivera is serving a life sentence for another murder.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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