An illegal Honduran immigrant was convicted of second-degree murder yesterday in the beating and stoning death of his 29-year-old roommate in woods behind Columbia's Flowerstock Row last spring.
A Howard County jury took just more than five hours yesterday to return the guilty finding for Marcos Escalante, one of three men charged in the mid-May death of Antonio Ayala, despite claims by Escalante's attorney that his client had been a secondary player in the incident and was only protecting himself when he hit Ayala.
But jurors apparently rejected the self-defense claim -- a claim disputed by prosecutors who stressed the severity of the beating, the makeup of the crime scene and Escalante's incriminating statements.
"His explanation was not consistent with a legitimate claim of self-defense," prosecutor Brendan Clary said after the verdict.
Escalante's attorney, Stephen Musselman, left the Howard Circuit Courthouse immediately after the 5:30 p.m. verdict and could not be reached last night for comment.
Escalante faces a maximum 30-year prison term at his May 8 sentencing before Howard Circuit Judge Lenore R. Gelfman. State sentencing guidelines recommend a prison term of between 12 and 20 years, prosecutors said.
Escalante becomes the second man to be convicted of murder in Ayala's killing. His cousin, Reyes Escalante, 19, pleaded guilty to the charge last month and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. The trial date for a third man, William Donis Maldonado, is pending.
The three shared an apartment with Ayala in the 5700 block of Stevens Forest Road.
A landscaper discovered Ayala's body May 20, five days after the men walked into the woods to drink, sparking an incident that would leave Ayala dead of blunt force trauma and send the other three on the run.
Investigators have said the three fled Maryland a little more than a day after the killing. Marcos Escalante and Maldonado were later arrested in Georgia, Reyes Escalante in North Carolina.
Throughout the three-day trial, prosecutors Jim Dietrich and Clary built their case around incriminating statements Marcos Escalante made to investigators in the days and months after his June 22 arrest in Clayton County, Ga.
During two police interviews, Escalante admitted hitting Ayala, dragging him to a creek bed and hitting him with stones, Clary told jurors during closing arguments yesterday.
"[Ayala] died an absolutely awful death. He died alone. He died in a creek bed. He died in pain," Clary said.
But Musselman noted that Escalante, a "day laborer" and illegal immigrant, told investigators that Ayala stabbed him in the ribs during a scuffle. And he argued that Escalante did not use the 4-by-4 piece of wood that investigators later identified as the murder weapon, but instead grabbed tree branches to swing at Ayala. Musselman blamed Maldonado for the killing and said his client's use of "violence" was justified.
"His intent was one of safety," he said.
But Clary argued that Escalante told investigators he had been stabbed only after detectives suggested the possibility that he had acted in self-defense. In interviews, Escalante changed his story when talking about the knife Ayala is said to have used, the prosecutor said. Clary also noted that investigators found the 4-by-4 within 21 feet of the body while the knife was 80 feet away.