A Baltimore jury found Policarpio Espinoza Perez guilty of murder conspiracy charges Tuesday in the grisly deaths of three young relatives in 2004, a conviction that could put him in prison for the rest of his life.
While jurors found that he played a role in the killings, they acquitted him of murder charges in two of them and could not decide in the third. With the panel deadlocked, a circuit judge declared a mistrial on a charge that Espinoza Perez, 31, slashed the throat of his 8-year-old niece.
Prosecutors convinced jurors of Espinoza Perez's involvement without establishing a firm motive for the killings. The state's attorney's office did not decide immediately whether to retry him on the third murder count.
Adan Espinoza Canela, also charged in the killings, goes on trial next week. It is the third time the two men have been tried in the killings that left Lucero Espinoza, 8, her brother Ricardo Espinoza, 9, and their cousin Alexis Espejo Quezada, 10, beaten and nearly decapitated.
At the first trial in 2005, jurors could not agree on a verdict, and the judge declared a mistrial. A second trial the next year ended in convictions and life sentences for both men, but the verdicts were overturned on appeal.
Espinoza Perez showed no emotion as he was shackled and led out of the courtroom, but attorney Nicholas Panteleakis said the conspiracy convictions are heartbreaking for his client. Espinoza Perez could receive three life terms at a sentencing set for April 29.
"He's crushed," Panteleakis said. "He's destroyed."
Ricardo Espinoza Perez and Noemi "Mimi" Quezada, the parents of two of the children, have said they think police arrested the wrong people. Outside the courthouse Tuesday, Ricardo Espinoza Perez had little to say.
"I don't understand," he said of the verdict. "I miss my life."
The case centers on a large immigrant family from Mexico. The web of relationships between victims, suspects and witnesses has complicated prosecutors' efforts for nearly a decade.
Espinoza Perez and Espinoza Canela, his nephew, previously were tried together; this time they are being tried separately.
Prosecutors argued this month that Espinoza Perez and Espinoza Canela were drawn into a murder plot by another relative, Guadalupe Juarez Hernandez. She was jealous, they said, of the 10-year-old victim's mother. The boy's mother had rebuffed advances from Espinoza Canela.
In a statement, Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein thanked the jury and said his office was gratified by the outcome. Prosecutors declined to comment further because Espinoza Canela, 26, still faces trial.
A spokesman said the office will review the evidence in the case and consider Espinoza Perez's sentence before deciding whether to pursue the murder charge that ended in a mistrial.
Tuesday's decision came after lengthy deliberations in which jurors repeatedly told Judge M. Brooke Murdock that they were struggling to reach a verdict.
Brian J. Murphy, who will represent Espinoza Canela at his trial next week, said Tuesday's verdict will not affect his client's case.
"It's going to be a different jury, it's different evidence and a different defendant," Murphy said. "Some of the most damaging evidence in this case here is not admissible against my client."
He pointed to a recorded statement that Espinoza Perez made to police shortly after the killings. It was the one substantial piece of new evidence in Espinoza Perez's third trial. It was never presented in full at previous trials because it implicated his co-defendant.
In it, Espinoza Perez admitted going to the children's apartment but said Espinoza Canela went inside alone.
The decision to have separate trials was a gamble, Murphy said, because the statement placed Espinoza Perez at the crime scene, but Panteleakis said he thought the move was in his client's best interests.
Prosecutors worked to tie Espinoza Perez and his nephew together, though only one man was in the courtroom. They argued that evidence from the autopsies showed that the children had been killed by two people.
The prosecution told a story of the days and hours before the children's death. A neighbor testified that both defendants had been seen behind the apartment two days before the killings, which prosecutors said showed that the defendants had reconnoitered.
Prosecutors said phone records showed that Juarez Hernandez and Espinoza Perez had been in close communication the day of the killings and that she had delayed the children's parents from getting home at the usual time. Juarez Hernandez is in prison in Mexico in a separate murder case and was not available to testify at Espinoza Perez's trial.
Investigators had bloodied clothing that they contended would have provided DNA evidence linking the two men to the crime, but a judge had ruled much of it inadmissible for the third trial. Murphy said he will be in court Wednesday to argue against the admissibility of some of the remaining DNA evidence ahead of Espinoza Canela's trial.
Panteleakis said he plans to appeal the verdict and to seek a new trial for Espinoza Perez.
The attorney said the jury might have been swayed more by the emotions raised by the case than by the evidence.
"No one wants to think there's killers on the street," he said.
A previous version of this story mischaracterized the murder charges that Espinoza Perez was facing. The Sun regrets the error.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun