Witnesses' credibility questioned; 18-year-old on trial in Salvadoran immigrant's death; 'I was nervous and scared'; Defense says brothers changed their statements


Attorneys representing an 18-year-old Laurel teen-ager charged in the death of Salvadoran immigrant Gilberto Hernandez last year attacked the credibility of the prosecution's two major witnesses as the trial began yesterday.

Steven Jacoby, an attorney representing Cochise I. "Cody" Queen, said the victim's younger brothers, Tomas and Juan Hernandez, changed their original statements to Laurel police after being coached by several community leaders.

"Thirteen months to the day, Tomas and Juan told the police that they did not know who attacked their brother," Jacoby told the Prince George's County Circuit Court jury in Upper Marlboro. "Where did this sudden recognition come from? Was their testimony embellished to make it better? That's what you have to decide."

Jacoby said his client -- a former football player at Laurel High School who is the first of three defendants to go on trial in the killing -- is a victim of mistaken identity. Queen is being tried on charges of first-degree murder and assault.

"Cody Queen is on trial for a crime that he did not commit," said Jacoby. "In this case, as you'll see, the search for truth is clouded by confusion and darkness."

But prosecutor Wesley Adams said yesterday that Queen and six other teen-agers confronted Hernandez, 40, and his brothers, Tomas and Juan, shortly before midnight Sept. 4, 1998. The brothers were traveling from their job at Four Seasons Buffet on U.S. 1 to the apartment they shared on Fourth Street in Laurel.

Adams said the youths began chasing the three brothers, trying to steal Tomas Hernandez's bike. They managed to catch Gilberto Hernandez, the lawyer said in his opening statement.

"After Cochise caught Mr. Hernandez, he stepped out, lowered his shoulder and ran right through him, knocking him to the ground," Adams said. "He hit him so hard that his head hit the concrete and was fractured," he added.

He said that two other teen-agers awaiting trial, Kelly Day Martin, 19, and Steven Darby, 17, joined Queen in kicking and beating Hernandez.

Charges dropped

All seven teen-agers were originally arrested, but Prince George's State's Attorney Jack Johnson later dropped charges against four of them, saying they were not involved in the attack. All four have agreed to testify against Queen, Martin and Darby. They have been granted immunity from prosecution.

"This trial was a lottery and Mr. Queen lost," Jacoby said.

Johnson's decision also drew sharp criticism from the Latino community, which argued that all seven teen-agers should have been charged, and blamed Johnson for failing to conduct a thorough investigation by not immediately interviewing Tomas and Juan Hernandez.

Johnson, who could not be reached for comment yesterday, defended his decision last year in an interview. He interviewed the brothers months after the killing, in April.

Details of encounter

Speaking through an interpreter, Tomas Hernandez, one of three prosecution witnesses called to testify yesterday, said he may have forgotten to tell Laurel police all of the details of his encounter with the seven teen-agers.

"I was nervous and scared," Tomas Hernandez told the jurors, saying he may have told police that he could not determine the identity of the individuals chasing him and his brothers.

"I just heard a thud, and I saw my brother sprawled out on the sidewalk," he said, in response to prosecutors' questions.

Among those following the trial is William Stagg, chairman of the Hispanic Advisory Committee of Prince George's County, an advocacy group. He has been subpoenaed as a possible defense witness, though he supports the Hernandez family.

"We trust the integrity of the jury, and we know that they are going to do the right thing," he said.

Pub Date: 10/05/99

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