A few months after Maria Andrea Espejo Quezada arrived in Baltimore from Mexico nine years ago, her son and two of his young relatives were beaten, strangled and almost decapitated.
She was the first witness to take the stand as the state tries for a third time to convict Policarpio Espinoza Perez, accused of carrying out the killings with his nephew Adan Canela.
Quezada provided insight into the life of her immigrant family, answering questions about romantic advances from extended members and alleged threats from a former husband in Mexico. A motive hasn't been established, but prosecutors have said complex family relationships stoked squabbles.
The first trial of Perez, 31, and Canela, 26, ended with a hung jury, a second resulted in a conviction that was overturned on appeal. Now each man is facing a jury again, but going to court separately.
And the state is again trying for conviction in a case that has defied explanation for years. While it is not clear how the testimony will factor into the case, Quezada appears to be looming larger in the case after other evidence including DNA was ruled inadmissible and witnesses became unavailable since the last trial.
Quezada was the mother of Alexis Espejo Quezada, 10, one of the victims killed in May 2004. Two other relatives, Lucero Espinoza, 8, and Ricardo Espinoza, 9, also died.
Assistant State's Attorney Cynthia M. Banks said Victor Espinoza Perez, the brother of her aunt's husband, took an interest in Quezada shortly after she arrived in Baltimore from Mexico. "He desired her," Banks said in her opening statement. "She rejected him."
Guadalupe Juarez Hernandez, Victor Perez's wife, was not pleased by her husband's actions, and Victor Perez's son, Canela, also approached Quezada, Banks said.
But Quezada said in her testimony, delivered through a Spanish interpreter, that neither man's advances were threatening or persistent.
Banks did not outline Policarpio Perez's connection to those relationships.
Nicholas Panteleakis, Perez's lead attorney, asked Quezada a series of questions about whether Jose Luis Solis, the father of her youngest child, had ever threatened her for leaving him and coming to the United States. He also said she told police that her husband was a drug dealer involved in human trafficking.
But Quezada said Solis worked as a lawyer in Mexico and denied ever feeling threatened by him.
Joan Fraser, another of Perez's attorneys, said in opening statements the only evidence that tied her client to the crime was a statement he made to police admitting he was outside the apartment shortly before the children were killed, a bloodied pair of jeans officers later found in his home and a shoe stained with blood that he was wearing the day of the killing.
"It's very tough to step away from those emotions," Fraser said, referring to the horrible nature of the crime. But, she added, "The state has to prove to you that Mr. Policarpio Espinoza Perez did what he is charged with."
The separate trials could give lawyers for Canela and Perez an advantage, as they seek to dispute evidence against each man, legal experts said. Meanwhile, Banks worked to link the two men.
"They were buddies," Banks said. "They did things together. They did almost everything together."
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