First of 3 teens accused in death of Salvadoran to go on trial today; Handling of case has concerned Hispanic, civic leaders


One of three Laurel teen-agers charged in the beating death last year of Salvadoran immigrant Gilberto Hernandez goes on trial today in Upper Marlboro, with Hispanic and civic leaders vowing to closely follow the proceedings.

"This is a defining moment for the Hispanic community in the state of Maryland," said the Rev. Brian Jordan, a spokesman for the Hernandez family.

"We hope that the truth comes out and that the verdict that is rendered is a fair one," said Jordan, a one-time activist in Prince George's County who recently moved to New York. Jordan said he expects a large showing of Hernandez supporters and friends the first day of the trial.

The much-publicized death Sept. 4, 1998, of Hernandez, 40, a dishwasher at the Four Seasons Buffet on U.S. 1, prompted an outcry from Hispanic leaders. They called on police and the Prince George's State's Attorney's Office to investigate a long list of crimes that they say have been been perpetrated against Hispanics in the county without adequate prosecution.

"We know that there has been a trend," said William Stagg, chairman of the Hispanic Advisory Committee of Prince George's County, an advocacy group. "And there is a language barrier in the State's Attorney's Office."

Stagg and others were disappointed by State's Attorney Jack B. Johnson's decision to not immediately interview Hernandez's brothers, Tomas and Juan, who told authorities that they witnessed their brother being chased and attacked by seven teen-agers wielding knives. They said that they managed to break away, but the group caught their brother, knocked him to the ground and kicked him.

Relatives rushed him to a hospital, but he died four days later from internal bleeding and brain injuries.

Critics say they believe Hernandez's brothers were not immediately interviewed because Johnson had no Spanish-speaking staff members. Johnson said in March that he has hired Hispanic prosecutors in the past and has two Spanish-speaking non-Hispanics working for him.

"We've said all along that Jack Johnson needs to hire bilingual and bicultural staff to work in his office," Stagg said.

Johnson defended his decision not to immediately interview the brothers, though he did not disclose his reasoning. He did, however, interview them in April.

The prosecutor also outraged the family when, based on findings from a grand jury investigation, he agreed to drop the charges against four of seven youths.

They have agreed to testify against the three teens still accused: Cochise I. Queen, 19, Kelly D. Martin, 19, and Steven Darby, 17. Prosecutors contend that Queen led the other two teen-agers in committing the assault while others watched. All three have been charged with common-law murder.

Queen's trial begins today. Repeated calls to his lawyer were not returned. Martin and Darby will be tried later.

Despite the Hernandez brothers' claim that the teen-agers were attempting to rob Gilberto Hernandez -- a conclusion Laurel police also reached -- Johnson said robbery was not a motive in the attack.

"We hope that the prosecutors will call the Hernandez brothers to testify, so that they can tell the jurors exactly what happened that night," said Jordan, a Franciscan priest who has been counseling Hernandez's wife and four children.

It is unclear how long Hernandez resided in the United States, but his wife and children have remained in the small town of San Vicente in El Salvador.

Last year, Laurel Mayor Frank P. Casula created a memorial fund for the family, raising more than than $10,000. Jordan delivered the money in a trip to El Salvador last year.

"They [the Hernandez family] live in absolute deplorable conditions," Jordan said, describing their two-room shack. "There is poor lighting and sparse furniture inside. The girls only have two dresses to wear."

He said half of the money has been placed in a trust fund to ensure that the four daughters receive a college education. The rest is used to help meet the family's daily needs.

"Ten thousand dollars can only go but so far," Jordan said. "Gilberto Hernandez was a hard-working Latino man who was washing dishes at the age of 40 and sending most of the money that he made back to his family in El Salvador. It is an outrage that this could happen to such a fine person."

Jordan and others say a conviction would mean a victory not only for the Hernandez family, but for Hispanics all across the state who have been targeted.

"I hope justice prevails," he said. "I have confidence in the judge and the jury -- but they are only going to be able to make the right decision if the prosecutor brings all of the evidence to the table."

Pub Date: 10/04/99

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