- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 22, 2006

BALTIMORE — Jury selection began yesterday in the retrial of two men accused of beheading three young relatives.

The defendants — Adan Canela, 19, and Policarpio Espinoza Perez, 24 — are charged in the May 27, 2004, killings of Ricardo Espinoza Jr., 9; his sister, Lucero Espinoza, 8; and their male cousin, Alexis Espejo Quezada, 10.

Prosecutors say Mr. Perez, the victims’ uncle, and Mr. Canela, their cousin, beat the children with an aluminum baseball bat, choked them and slashed their throats with a boning knife in their Northwest Baltimore apartment.

The first trial, which included more than 300 pieces of evidence and five weeks of testimony from about two dozen witnesses, ended in August 2005 in a hung jury after 10 days of deliberations.

The trial attracted so much press attention that Baltimore Circuit Judge David B. Mitchell yesterday expressed concern about intimate details of the case and its evidence tainting potential jurors.

He cautioned attorneys “to conduct our business in the courtroom [not] on the [courthouse] steps.”

Attorneys in the case said jury selection might take several days and expect the trial to start no earlier than the middle of next week.

They also agreed not to disclose the immigration statuses or reported gang affiliations of the defendants or witnesses, saying they were irrelevant to the case.

Judge Mitchell also denied a motion to try the defendants separately and one by Mr. Perez’s attorney to throw out his client’s statement to police.

The attorney, Nick Panteleakis, argued that editing references to Mr. Canela from Mr. Perez’s statement had fundamentally altered the statement, making it inadmissible.

Mr. Perez told police he drove to the children’s apartment with Mr. Canela at about the time of the murders and that he stayed in the car while Mr. Canela went inside the apartment.

Judge Mitchell said references to Mr. Canela were taken out of the statement because Mr. Canela has a right to confront his accuser.

The motive for the killings remains a mystery because the defendants’ relatives, who are illegal aliens from Mexico and were granted special visas for the duration of the trial, have steadfastly defended the two men.

The children’s mothers, described by police and prosecutors as “uncooperative,” said they sensed danger before the killings. They initially speculated that young children who had been painting skulls on a nearby garage or a woman who disliked the children’s noisy horseplay had committed the crimes.

Defense attorneys have suggested that human traffickers killed the children to “send a message” after the family failed to pay for their illegal trip into the United States.

They also accused police of framing the defendants amid pressure to solve the high-profile case. One attorney said he thought the jurors who held out for a guilty verdict likely were prejudiced against the defendants because of their sex or ethnicity.

Prosecutors again expect to focus heavily on DNA evidence improved by testing with new, more sophisticated equipment that Assistant State’s Attorney Sharon Holback said will make it “much clearer to the jury who committed these crimes.”

The men face life imprisonment if convicted of three counts of conspiracy and first-degree murder.

This article is based in part on wire services.

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