Adan Canela and Policarpio Espinoza

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

A city judge cleared the way Monday for new trials of two men accused of slashing the throats of three children in a grisly triple murder nine years ago, settling a slew of legal disputes over years-old testimony and forensic evidence.

A March 11 trial has been scheduled for Policarpio Espinoza Perez, 30, and a separate trial for Adan Canela, 25, will likely follow. The defense and prosecution agreed to give the co-defendants separate trials. They had been tried together in 2005 and 2006.

Canela and Perez, both illegal immigrants from Mexico, are accused of nearly beheading three young relatives in Northwest Baltimore on May 27, 2004: Lucero Espinoza, 8; her brother, Ricardo Espinoza, 9; and Alexis Espejo Quezada, 10, the siblings' cousin. The case attracted media attention worldwide because of the brutal attacks on innocent children and remained in the news for months as authorities never proved a motive for the killings.

Both men were arrested after a pair of apparently blood-stained jeans were found in the house they shared, while gloves and another pair of jeans were found in Perez's car. DNA analysis later linked the items to the killings, prosecutors said.

The first trial ended in a hung jury. They were both convicted and given life sentences a year later, but that case was overturned on appeal. The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled in 2011 that a trial judge should have shared with attorneys the content of notes jurors sent him during the trial. The notes included case questions and concerns about one member of the jury.

Over the years, as the case continues to resurface in court, witnesses have disappeared. One detective handling the case has died, a witness was killed and another was convicted of hiring a hit man in Mexico for that killing.

"This case is unlike any I've seen, let alone imagined, before," Perez's lead attorney Nick Panteleakis said.

Panteleakis asked to have the men tried separately because that would allow an entire statement his client made to police to be entered after it was barred in past trials. Canela's attorney, Brian Murphy, said it also allows the defense to question statements and evidence that may not apply to both men. It may also, in theory, allow one defendant to suggest the other was responsible, he said.

"You can point to the other guy as much as you want," Murphy said. "You're relieved of that stricture."

Prosecutors wouldn't comment on why they agreed to split the case.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys presented about 10 motions for Circuit Judge M. Brooke Murdock to rule on Monday before new trials of Perez and Canela can proceed. The rulings included allowing past testimony of a now-retired detective, whose credibility defense attorneys questioned. Murdock also allowed the testimony of a witness who said she saw both men near the crime scene two days before the killings after she and a detective were re-examined Monday.

The judge also allowed prosecutors to use an expert testifying about blood spatter, though defense attorneys said the man wasn't qualified and used questionable methodology. A hearing to decide whether the state's attorney's office can use a DNA expert has been scheduled Jan. 22.

Meanwhile, the judge gave prosecutors until Feb. 25 to see if they could interview or find a way to get trial witness Guadalupe Hernandez to Baltimore. She is in a Mexican prison, convicted of hiring the killer of her husband, Victor Espinoza Perez, who is the head of the extended family at the center of the killings.

Panteleakis would like to have her barred as a witness on the basis of her credibility because of the contract killing. He is working with the Mexican consulate to secure her Mexican court records that he said could support his argument before the judge.

jgeorge@baltsun.com

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