The trial of two Mexican immigrants accused of slashing the throats of three children is scheduled to begin today, and once a jury is seated, prosecutors and defense attorneys will present different versions of what happened last year in a Northwest Baltimore apartment.
Police and prosecutors believe Policarpio Espinoza, 23, and his nephew, Adan Canela, 18, an uncle and a cousin, respectively, of the dead children, used a fillet knife to behead one and partially decapitate the other two.
Ricardo Solis Quezada Jr. and his sister, Lucero Solis Quezada, both 9, and their 10-year-old male cousin, Alexis Espejo Quezada, were killed in their Fallstaff apartment after returning home from school the afternoon of May 27, 2004.
The brutal nature of the crime traumatized the family's neighbors at Samester Apartments, the children's schoolmates at Cross Country Elementary School and city residents who are more accustomed to hearing about street-corner violence.
Relatives of the children have said they do not believe Canela and Espinoza are the killers.
The two men, neither of whom speaks fluent English, are scheduled to be tried together in Baltimore City Circuit Court in a case that could go on for weeks and be filled with Perry Mason-like twists orchestrated by defense attorneys. Espinoza and Canela are each charged with three counts of first-degree murder.
Defense attorneys said in separate interviews yesterday that they plan to explain alternate theories of the crime - naming names and giving detailed possible motives.
"Expect to hear of other very plausible suspects during the case," said James Rhodes, one of Canela's attorneys. "The jury may actually even hear proof of other people involved in this crime."
In pretrial hearings and court documents, prosecutors have not hinted at any motive for the slayings, and they might not present one during the trial. Though a jury can convict defendants without knowing why they did it, law professors and lawyers said the lack of a motive in such a horrific crime could make the state's case more difficult.
"Motive helps the jury decide whether the right person is on trial," said Douglas L. Colbert, a University of Maryland professor who has taught criminal law for 20 years. "Absent a motive, jurors have more reason to believe a reasonable doubt exists."
Assistant State's Attorneys Sharon R. Holback and Tony N. Garcia, who are prosecuting the case, declined to comment.
Rhodes said he intends to present "at least two plausible motives that do not involve Mr. Canela." He did not elaborate, but he said that at least one of the other potential suspects is listed as a prosecution witness.
He refused to say whether either of the Canela defense theories involves Espinoza, but he said that he is "1,000 percent sure" that the two sets of defense attorneys are operating under different theories.
Nicholas Panteleakis, one of Espinoza's lawyers, said their defense team also has a "solid theory of what happened." He said he and attorney Timothy M. Dixon would possibly name the men they suspect to be the killers.
On the day of the killings, police questioned a "person of interest" who had a dispute with the children's relatives. Police said at the time that one of the mothers had pointed them to the man, who was released that night from police custody.
"There's definitely something not right with that 'person of interest,' " Panteleakis said.
Police may have turned their attention to Espinoza and Canela because "they were the easy pick," Panteleakis said. "They showed up late and gave different statements about where they were. It gave police something to hang their hat on. Prosecutors have built their case around that."
Court documents and pretrial-motions hearings provide a look at the case against Canela and Espinoza. Prosecutors said it is their policy not to talk about pending cases.
The men were arrested the day after the crime, and charging documents against them refer to a bloody T-shirt and towel found at the Baltimore County home where Espinoza and Canela lived.
Defense attorneys said they have seen no information from police about a bloody T-shirt. Crime laboratory reports in the court file make no mention of such a T-shirt but do note that a pair of blue jeans that were analyzed did have a blood stain that matched one of the children. It is not clear from the reports where the jeans came from.
The court file also is filled with DNA laboratory reports. An analysis dated Sept. 13 states that Espinoza's DNA, along with that of the dead children, was found on several gloves in the trunk of a car he drove. One glove had a mixture of DNA from all three victims and both suspects, according to the analysis.
Contrary to information that emerged early in the investigation, none of the gloves was bloody, according to court documents.
Another major piece of evidence for prosecutors is a taped statement that Espinoza gave police hours after the killings. According to a transcript of the statement, Espinoza told police that he and Canela drove to the children's Fallstaff apartment the afternoon of the crime. Canela went in alone, he said, and emerged 20 minutes later, shirtless, through a rear window.
A judge ruled that statement admissible last month, but lawyers said it is unlikely that the jury will ever hear Espinoza's accusation about Canela. That is because Canela has a right to confront his accuser under cross examination, and Espinoza is unlikely to take the stand.
"It's definitely out," said Lynn McLain, a University of Baltimore law professor and evidence expert. "Prosecutors could redact the part where he implicates the other suspect, but that's about it."
The defense lawyers said they plan to ask Circuit Judge Thomas Ward this morning to postpone the case, but another judge denied a postponement request last week. If the case proceeds today, the judge will hear pretrial motions, including a request to try the defendants independently. Motions would be followed by jury selection, which could take a day or more. When a panel of 12 jurors and several alternates is seated, lawyers will give their opening statements.
Rhodes said his theories of the crime will become clear in his opening. "I guarantee there are going to be surprises," he said.
To read archival coverage of the killings in the Northwest Baltimore neighborhood, go to www.baltimoresun.com/fall staff.