Motive in killings remains unclear

Review The Sun's summary of the 2004 killings of three Mexican children and the subsequent trials here.
Despite five weeks of testimony, the reason behind the slashing deaths last year of three elementary school children in Northwest Baltimore is "some secret buried in the family," a prosecutor told jurors in her closing arguments yesterday in the trial of the two relatives charged in the killings.

Prosecutors repeatedly addressed the issue of motive as the Baltimore Circuit Court trial of Policarpio Espinoza and Adan Canela drew to an end. The jury began deliberating about 4 p.m. and will continue this morning.

Defense attorneys in their closing arguments hammered on what they said is a lack of evidence in the case. Espinoza's attorney accused police of being so eager to solve the crime that they railroaded Espinoza and Canela, whom he said got along well with their relatives and would have had no reason to kill the children.

Almost from the time the children's bodies were discovered more than 14 months ago, investigators and others have been transfixed by the unanswered question of motive.

Defense attorneys for Canela suggested during the trial that Canela's father, Victor Espinoza Perez - who is the eldest brother of Espinoza and Ricardo Espinoza Perez, the father of two of the slain children - was responsible for illegally transporting people from Mexico and had a romantic interest in one of the mothers of the slain children. Neither suggestion fully developed into a theory for the crime.

Prosecutors throughout the trial said Espinoza and Victor Espinoza Perez's wife exchanged a flurry of phone calls the day of the killings, raising suspicions about her. Canela also had propositioned Maria Andrea Espejo Quezada, the same woman his father was interested in, her testimony revealed. She said she rejected both men.

Assistant State's Attorney Tony N. Garcia called the crime "a horror story. No motive is good enough." But when Assistant State's Attorney Sharon R. Holback gave the state's rebuttal closing arguments hours later, she said rhetorically: "We do know what the motive is, don't we?"

She referred to a family secret, saying the children, Lucero Espinoza, 8, her brother Ricardo Espinoza, 9, and their male cousin Alexis Espejo Quezada, 10, lived "with parents who were not free to protect them." She compared their parents' plight with that of slaves in early America and the children's brutal deaths to those of Jews and Muslims during the Inquisition.

The three children were found beaten and nearly decapitated May 27, 2004, in the family's Fallstaff apartment. The boys also were strangled.

Their uncle, Espinoza, 23, and cousin, Canela, 18, were arrested hours later and charged with three counts of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. They could receive life in prison if convicted.

Prosecutors returned to the theme they developed at the trial's opening, again urging jurors to "follow the trail of the children's blood." This time, Holback pointed to the defendants and added: "Because it leads to them and they are guilty."

Timothy M. Dixon, an attorney for Espinoza, argued that what prosecutors showed the jury was "manufactured evidence and contrived evidence" that has been "wrapped in grief, anger and fear."

Much of Dixon's argument was that a forensic scientist who testified about gathering the critical DNA evidence in the case had a financial incentive to "manufacture evidence." He said Salvatore Bianca, a former Baltimore Police Department crime lab employee, "saw evidence that no one else saw."

Bianca used a vacuuming device that he invented to suction debris, such as skin cells, from the interior of bloody articles of clothing that prosecutors used to link the defendants to the crime. Dixon said the scientist stands to make "millions of dollars" if he can prove that his invention works, drawing a chortle from Bianca, who was sitting in the courtroom.

James Rhodes, an attorney for Canela, said there is so little evidence against his client that police and prosecutors just "grouped him together" with Espinoza.

"Based on the evidence, I believe that he's innocent," Rhodes said of Canela. "But one thing I'm certain of is that they haven't proven their case beyond a reasonable doubt."

During an hourlong closing argument before the defense attorneys spoke and an hourlong rebuttal afterward, the prosecutors ticked through the timeline of the crime and recapped their evidence.

Two women who lived in the same apartment complex as the children testified that they saw the defendants acting strangely in the days before the killings, lurking in the rear of the apartment and ringing the doorbell for a long period of time.

Hours after the children's bodies were found, detectives took many relatives downtown to question them. Among them was Espinoza, who gave police a taped statement in which he said he parked outside the children's apartment at 4:20 p.m., about the time police believe the children were killed.

Espinoza said in the statement that he remained outside while Canela went into the apartment for about half an hour and emerged shirtless through a rear window. But jurors were not permitted to hear that portion of the tape because Canela has a right to confront an accuser and Espinoza could not be forced to testify at his own trial.

Canela, when asked about the crime at police headquarters, replied that he "didn't know [expletive]." Detectives testified that he seemed "cold" and "without a soul."

Yesterday, as he did during other key parts of the trial, Canela wiped at a steady stream of tears. Espinoza has seemed less emotional, although his back usually faces the courtroom audience.

Four articles of bloody clothing link the defendants to the crime, prosecution witnesses testified. Two left-handed work gloves, found inside a Pontiac Grand Am the men used, contained the blood of the children and DNA consistent with Espinoza's.

One of those gloves included a genetic profile that was consistent with Canela's. But a defense witness testified that DNA alleles unique to Canela were absent from the glove so it cannot conclusively be matched to him.

A dark blue pair of "No Boundaries" brand blue jeans that detectives said were in the trunk of the Pontiac had bloodstains matching the children. Debris on the inside of one knee was consistent with Canela's DNA, suggesting that he may have worn the pants.

Another pair of jeans, taken from a fireplace mantle in the attic bedroom of the Baltimore County home where the men lived, also was stained with the children's blood. These jeans contained debris consistent with Espinoza's genetic profile, a Baltimore police DNA expert testified.

Prosecutors also showed the jury a black loafer that Espinoza was wearing when he was arrested. On it was "the teeniest, tiniest drop of Lucero's blood," Holback said during her opening statements.

Defense attorneys have contested the DNA evidence by saying that their clients are so closely related to the victims and the rest of the family that their genetic profiles are all too similar to know for sure whose is whose.