A turbulent spring among a family of immigrants nine years ago led to a plot to slash the throats of three young children, prosecutors said Thursday in closing arguments in the murder trial of Policarpio Espinoza Perez.
"There was something terribly wrong in that family dynamic," Assistant State's Attorney Nicole Lomartire said.
Prosecutors told a story about the days and hours before the killings, pointing to romantic tensions among members of the large Espinoza Perez family of illegal immigrants from Mexico, but stopped short of spelling out a conclusive motive for the May 2004 killings.
Nine years on and with a third jury deliberating the evidence, it seems unlikely that one will ever be established.
But Assistant State's Attorney Cynthia M. Banks said it did not matter. She said repeatedly that the law does not require prosecutors to show why the children were killed.
"Motive is something for the media to talk about," Banks told the jury. "Only he knows why he did it. But you know that he did it."
Espinoza Perez, 31, is accused of killing his niece, Lucero Espinoza, 8, and nephew, Ricardo Espinoza, 9, and Alexis Espejo Quezada, 10.
Another nephew, Adan Espinoza Canela, 26, also is accused in the killings.
Although it is the third time that Espinoza Perez has faced trial, it is the first time he has sat alone at the defense table, without Espinoza Canela as a co-defendant.
Jurors could not reach a verdict in the first trial, and a later conviction was overturned.
Judge M. Brooke Murdock said Thursday that the trial of Espinoza Canela would begin April 1.
In the current trial, the jury heard in its entirety a statement Espinoza Perez made to police shortly after the killings — evidence entered in part during the earlier trials because it implicated Espinoza Canela, then his co-defendant.
In the statement, Espinoza Perez acknowledged having been outside the apartment building where the killings took place, but said that only the other man went into the apartment.
Banks said Espinoza Perez knew too many details of the crime to have just been outside.
"In every lie ... there's always a little bit of truth," she said.
Nicholas Panteleakis, Espinoza Perez's lead attorney, said the state had little evidence to link his client to the scene and was relying on the emotion roused by the brutal killings to try to win a conviction. The case against Espinoza Perez comes down to "a statement, a pair of jeans and a shoe," he said.
Panteleakis said the killings might have been committed or orchestrated by Jose Luis Solis, an ex-husband of Alexis Espejo Quezada's mother, Maria Andrea Espejo Quezada, whom she described to police as a drug dealer and human smuggler in Mexico.
But Lomartire said the "seeds of betrayal" were sown months before the killings when Maria Andrea Espejo Quezada arrived in the United States with her son, Alexis Espejo Quezada.
She quickly attracted the attention of Victor Espinoza Perez, her aunt's brother-in-law, and Espinoza Canela, according to testimony in the case.
Lomartire said Policarpio Espinoza Perez was drawn into the plot by his sister-in-law, Guadalupe Juarez Hernandez, who had been marginalized in the family and ignored by her husband, but had formed a close bond with Espinoza Perez.
The plan took shape in the last full week of May 2004, Lomartire said. The day the children died, she said, Juarez Hernandez drove the other family members home, making unusual stops to buy the killers time and keeping in contact with Espinoza Perez by phone.
"She sets the tone," Lomartire said. "She can keep them out for as long as needed."
Juarez Hernandez did not testify in the case because she is imprisoned in Mexico, convicted of arranging the murder of her husband, Victor Espinoza Perez, in 2009.
Panteleakis attacked the state's theory, arguing that the evidence did not show that the family was roiled enough by amorous disputes to carry out the killings. He said Victor Espinoza Perez's and Espinoza Canela's advances toward Espejo Quezada had been slight.
"Let me get this straight: Victor caresses Maria Andrea's arm once ... so Guadalupe's going to get Policarpio to do this?" he asked.
Much of the evidence that prosecutors said linked Policarpio Espinoza Perez to the crime in the second trial was ruled inadmissible in the third, leaving them less to work with.
Panteleakis urged the jury to consider the evidence carefully.
The pair of pants, which were found in Espinoza Perez's bedroom and bore Lucero Espinoza's blood, contained DNA from another unidentified person, he said, and blood on the shoe could have been transferred from one of the children's fathers.
Lomartire said the case was strong.
"The evidence screams that the defendant Policarpio Espinoza Perez is guilty," she said.