A Baltimore judge sentenced Policarpio Espinoza Perez to life in prison Monday for conspiring to murder his brother's two children and their young cousin nearly a decade ago in a killing described as the "most horrific" to ever come before the court.
The parents of Ricardo and Lucero Espinoza, 8 and 9 years old, came home to their Fallstaff apartment in May 2004 to find the boys and their 10-year-old cousin, Alexis Espejo Quezada, beaten and mutilated, their throats cut and bleeding.
The images haunt the children's survivors today, members of the large Mexican immigrant family told the court Monday. They said the punishment brings no solace.
After three trials — the first ended in a hung jury, and murder convictions in the second were overturned on appeal — they still have no answers about why the Cross Country Elementary School children were killed, other than a vague theory by prosecutors involving revenge and jealousy. The parents of the Espinozas appear split on whether Policarpio Espinoza Perez, 31, is to blame.
"My brother is innocent and the person who committed the crime is loose [and] laughing at the authorities," Ricardo Espinoza Perez, father to Lucero and young Ricardo, told the court in Spanish through an interpreter.
Their mother, also speaking in Spanish, neither condemned nor commended the defendant, her brother-in-law, saying only that the outcome was not in her control.
"I've left this to my God's will," Noemi "Mimi" Quezada said.
A second defendant, 26-year-old Adan Espinoza Canela, Policarpio Espinoza Perez's nephew, is set for trial next month on charges he carried out the killings. The two men, who each came to the country illegally from Mexico, were tried together in the first two trials, but their attorneys chose to separate them for the third.
An attorney for Policarpio Espinoza Perez said he planned to file an appeal.
"He says he didn't do it, and I believe him," attorney Nicholas Panteleakis said. If the conviction stands, he said, his client, who has already spent nine years in prison, will likely be eligible for parole by 2025.
The brutal deaths of the children, two in fourth grade and one in third, confounded even those hardened to violence in the city. The children were all victims of blunt force trauma, and at least two of them — Ricardo and his sister, Lucero — were still alive when their throats were slashed, according to Assistant State's Attorney Nicole Lomartire.
The cut to Alexis' neck was so deep, he was nearly beheaded.
"This was probably the most horrific crime that the court has had the displeasure to preside over," Baltimore Circuit Judge M. Brooke Murdock said Monday. She heard emotional testimony Monday from the children's parents and the defendant.
Policarpio Espinoza Perez told the court he came to the United States to "look for a better life" but has instead spent nine years in prison for a crime he says he didn't commit.
"I love my family," he said through an interpreter. "I've never done anything against them."
A nephew, Jesus Espinoza Juarez, testified on his uncle's behalf, telling the court he considered Policarpio Espinoza Perez a father figure who "was there" when no one else was.
But Lomartire described him as a cold killer who conspired to murder the children in a way so cruel that "there is no rational reason" to explain it.
"He preyed on the weak," Lomartire said.
Maria Espejo, mother to Alexis, described her son as an intelligent, happy little boy who had big dreams of one day being an engineer.
"I ask every night of my God that I want him to erase the memory of the way I found him. I want to remember him as the happy-go-lucky boy he was," Espejo said through an interpreter.
When asked what she wanted from the sentencing, she said answers from the defendant.
"I'd like to find out why did he do it," she said. "He destroyed my life."
Noemi Quezada said through tears that the years have been difficult.
"I haven't been able to be happy even though God did send me a daughter," she said. "I have a lot of rancor in my heart that I can't stand. ... I walk and I walk and I don't find an exit, an escape."
Her husband echoed her sentiments, saying "half of [his] heart" had been taken away.
In the latest trial, Espinoza Perez was acquitted of murdering two of the children, and a charge of murder against the third was undecided, leading the judge to declare a mistrial in that instance. The Baltimore prosecutor's office has not said whether it intends to retry that charge.