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News Maryland Baltimore Crime Beat

Third trial set to start in slashing of three children's throats

Policarpio Espinoza Perez and Adan Canela have been mentioned in the same breath since they were charged nine years ago in Baltimore with slashing the throats of three young relatives, ages 8, 9 and 10. They have sat side-by-side at two trials, but as prosecutors this week make a third try at convicting them, each man will get a chance to tell his own story.

The change could allow the defendants to challenge the prosecution's theory that they were both involved in the Northwest Baltimore murders — another hurdle for a prosecution already without key pieces of evidence from the last trial seven years ago.

E. Wesley Adams III, a former Baltimore homicide prosecutor who was not involved in the case, said it is generally more difficult to convict defendants separately. "It's like watching a TV show with only one character."

Perez, 31, an uncle of two of the victims, will begin his trial Monday. Canela, 26, a cousin of theirs, is scheduled to face a jury later this spring.

The illegal immigrants from Mexico are accused of brutally murdering Lucero Espinoza, 8, her brother Ricardo Espinoza, 9, and their cousin Alexis Espejo Quezada, 10, at their apartment in the 7000 block of Park Heights Ave. in 2004.

The bizarre case captured the region's attention and focused on a complex family tree with roots in a small Mexican town. Defendants, witnesses and victims share common relatives — some here and some abroad — making it harder for investigators to untangle what happened on the day the children died.

The men's lawyers say the separate trials will allow them to shed new light on parts of a story that has eluded explanation for years.

"For the first time everyone's going to hear exactly what my client said," said Nicholas Panteleakis, Perez's attorney, referring to a police interview in which his client claims never to have entered the apartment where the children were nearly beheaded.

Police arriving on the scene later described it as one of the most gruesome they had ever encountered.

Officers soon found a 10-inch knife they believed was used in the crime, and a neighbor picked out Canela and Perez at the scene, saying she'd seen them acting suspiciously near the apartment a few days before. Subsequent searches turned up what police said was bloodied clothing.

But confusion about the evidence left jurors unable to agree on a verdict the first time the case came to trial in 2005. The Baltimore State's Attorney's Office tried again the following year, securing convictions that were overturned because of judicial errors.

Canela's lawyer, Brian J. Murphy, said he thinks the evidence has always been weaker against his client and that the juries will now have a chance to weigh the case of each man more carefully.

"Even though the jury's supposed to consider each one separately it's hard to do," he said. "You're sitting in the same boat."

The state's attorney's office declined to comment on the case, following its usual policy.

But Tony Garcia, a former prosecutor who handled the first two trials, said securing a conviction has become "harder, but it's not impossible."

Lawyers for Perez and Canela won a number of pretrial rulings to have prosecution evidence — including much of the DNA used last time — barred. Guadalupe Juarez Hernandez, a key witnesses, is now in prison in Mexico, convicted of arranging the murder of her husband Victor Espinoza Perez, and it is unclear whether she will be available at trial.

Garcia said prosecutors will have to be creative in constructing a narrative around the killings without Hernandez. He relied heavily on her testimony during the last trial.

"She is extremely important to the case," he added. "She is the center of the wheel, everything else is a spoke from her."

On top of that, prosecutors will have to deal with the added workload of trying the case twice, back-to-back.

Perez and Canela have been linked since the neighbor identified both of them, and Garcia said the evidence suggested that both men were present during the killings. But prosecutors have never been able to conclusively establish a motive for the attacks.

In the vacuum, theories have flourished. At trial Garcia suggested romantic jealousies in the large family. Panteleakis proposed in an interview that the crime led back to a vengeful figure in Mexico and said his client was not connected.

The two men were quickly arrested and charged with the May 27 killings. But Noemi "Mimi" Quezada and Ricardo Espinoza Perez, the parents of Lucero and Ricardo, have consistently said they think the two are innocent and, like many of the witnesses, they are expected to be called for both the prosecution and the defense.

The couple has been working with Panteleakis to gather evidence for the third trial. Friday morning, Ricardo Perez came by the lawyer's office to drop off clothes for Policarpio Perez, his brother, to wear in court. He declined to be interviewed.

Shortly after being taken into custody, Policarpio Perez told police that he was never inside the apartment where the children were killed, according charging documents in the case. He said he dropped Canela off and waited outside.

The statement has only been presented at the previous trials in heavily redacted form because attorneys for Canela could not question Policarpio Perez to challenge his accusation. Panteleakis said that gave an "inaccurate" picture of Perez's actions, but it can now be introduced in full.

"It's going to make a lot more sense," he added.

Murphy said the full statement will not be used in Canela's trial and does not think Panteleakis's strategy will harm him.

Panteleakis also said he thinks more will be revealed about the relationship between Alexis Quezada's mother, Maria Andrea Espejo Quezada, and her husband. At the second trial, Noemi Quezada reluctantly told the judge that he had made threats against the family, but the testimony caught lawyers off guard and was only presented to the jury in general terms.

In the second trial, prosecutors suggested that Guadalupe Hernandez, Canela's stepmother and Perez's sister-in-law, might have orchestrated the killings to get revenge on Victor Perez for having an affair.

To advance the theory, prosecutors introduced phone records that they said showed Hernandez was in constant communication with Policarpio Perez that day in May. Even though Hernandez is imprisoned, Judge M. Brooke Murdock ruled that her prior testimony could not be used, making it hard for prosecutors to make good use of those records, according to Garcia.

Panteleakis and Murphy, perhaps not surprisingly, thought Murdock had ruled fairly.

"As the unreliable evidence has been winnowed down or excluded the case against both of them really gets weaker," Murphy said. "The reason it's a weak case is because they didn't do it.

"It's sort of simple."

iduncan@baltsun.com

twitter.com/iduncan

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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