- Associated Press - Friday, January 10, 2020

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) - A federal judge has ordered that an accused gang leader facing a possible death sentence will receive a separate trial from his co-defendants.

Twenty-nine-year-old Elmer Zelaya Martinez is accused of leading his accomplices in the MS-13 street gang in the 2016 stabbing deaths of 17-year-old Edvin Escobar Mendez and 14-year-old Sergio Arita Triminio.

Earlier this week, the Justice Department decided to pursue the death penalty against Zelaya Martinez but not against the other 10 co-defendants. It is the first time since 2012 that prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia have given notice that they intend to pursue the death penalty.

At a hearing Friday, U.S. District Judge Rossie Alston ruled it would be unfairly prejudicial to Zelaya Martinez to put him on trial alongside 10 others who weren’t facing a possible death sentence.

The ruling is a victory for the defendants. The other 10 defendants wanted a separate trial in part because a joint trial would require that any potential juror would be willing to consider a death penalty. Legal experts generally agree that excluding potential jurors who object on principle to the death penalty skews any jury in favor of conviction.

A separate trial also benefits Zelaya Martinez, who otherwise might be stigmatized from the outset of the trial as more culpable than his co-defendants because of his death-eligible status.

Prosecutors had wanted all the defendants to be tried jointly.

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