Adan Canela and Policarpio Espinoza

These 2004 photos provided by the Baltimore Police department show Adan Espinoza Canela, then 18, left, and Policarpio Espinoza Perez, 23. (Baltimore Police Department / May 31, 2004)

Adan Espinoza Canela pleaded guilty on Thursday to slashing the throats of three young relatives, more than nine years after the children's beaten and bloodied bodies were found in a Northwest Baltimore apartment.

Espinoza Canela, 26, was sentenced to 30 years in prison Thursday. He will be eligible for parole by 2019.

His uncle, Policarpio Espinoza Perez, 31, was convicted this year of conspiracy to commit murder for his part in the killings and sentenced to life in prison. He is appealing the verdict.

The two men, neither of whom is in the country legally, had their cases heard three times — twice together. The first trial ended in a hung jury, and guilty verdicts in the second were overturned on appeal. The difference between the two sentences this year raised objections from the father of two of the victims.

Ricardo Espinoza Perez questioned the fairness of Espinoza Canela's sentence and has said he thinks Policarpio Espinoza is innocent.

"I don't think it would be fair to give him 30 years," Ricardo Espinoza Perez said in court Thursday, speaking through a Spanish interpreter. "He should receive 200 years."

At the end of the plea hearing, Espinoza Canela made a brief, cryptic statement to the judge.

"I thought that my family knew me, really that they would understand," he said in Spanish. "But I see that's not it. … They broke my heart."

In a statement, Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein praised everyone who had worked on the case for their "perseverance."

"This case is one of the most horrifying that our city has seen," he added. "This result brings some measure of closure to this terrible tragedy."

Ricardo Espinoza Perez and his wife, Noemi "Mimi" Quezada, arrived at their Falstaff apartment in May 2004 expecting their children, Ricardo and Lucero Espinoza, 8 and 9 years old, and their 10-year-old nephew Alexis Espejo Quezada to be waiting for them after a day at school.

Instead, the family returned home after a day's work on their food truck to find the children beaten and mutilated, their throats cut and bleeding.

"They were three little trees that were growing," Espinoza Perez said. "They were cut. They will never flower again."

The investigation revolved around an extended family of immigrants who had come to Baltimore illegally from Mexico at various points in the years before the crime.

At Espinoza Perez's trial, prosecutors said the two men had been seen at the apartment building a few days before the killing, which they argued was a trip planning how to commit the murders. They said they found bloodied clothing in Espinoza Perez's car.

But prosecutors were not able to establish a firm motive for the attack on the children. They pointed to a romantic falling out between two other family members, but did not explain why that might have led to the children's deaths.

The jury in Espinoza Perez's trial convicted him on conspiracy counts but cleared him of two murder charges and deadlocked on a third, which was later dropped.

Espinoza Canela's defense attorney Brian Murphy said he believes prosecutors' experience with Espinoza Perez's trial and lingering questions about genetic material might have led to the new deal.

"It was a fair resolution of a difficult case," he said.

Both sides had agreed to try the two men separately, a departure from previous trials.

Espinoza Canela was set to go before a jury a third time in the fall. A judge had barred key DNA evidence in the case, but prosecutors said at a hearing earlier this year that they wanted her to reconsider and planned to present new expert testimony in October.

Nicholas Panteleakis, Espinoza Perez's attorney, questioned the fairness of the outcome. The deal struck Thursday is better than one both Espinoza Canela and Espinoza Perez rejected last November, which would have seen them receive life sentences with all but 40 years suspended.

"I'm very unhappy that my client's serving life in prison for conspiracy when the guy who is admitting killing the kids is getting 30 years," Panteleakis said.

iduncan@baltsun.com

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