The murder trial of two Mexican immigrants that was to begin yesterday was delayed for a month when one of the defense lawyers began nodding off because of a prescription painkiller he is taking for a mouth ailment.
The postponement came before jury selection was to begin in the case of Adan Canela, 18, and his uncle, Policarpio Espinoza, 23, who are accused of slitting the throats of three young relatives last year in a Northwest Baltimore apartment. During pretrial motions, James Rhodes, Canela's attorney, told the judge that he was not "acute" enough to adequately defend his client.
Two Baltimore Circuit Court judges reluctantly agreed to move the trial to July 6, though both expressed concern that Rhodes was trying to delay the case. Last week, defense attorneys asked Circuit Judge Lynn K. Stewart to postpone the trial because they were still analyzing evidence. She denied the motion.
Everything appeared to be in place yesterday for the start of the trial. More than 100 potential jurors had been summoned, one of the largest courtrooms was reserved and a retired judge was brought in on special assignment. All six lawyers and two court-appointed interpreters for the Spanish-speaking defendants were present.
Then, just before court began, Rhodes informed Circuit Judge Thomas Ward of his condition. Ward initially refused to delay the case, but he changed his mind after a lengthy conference during which other attorneys described Rhodes as "off." In administrative court, Stewart approved the postponement - but not before expressing irritation and skepticism.
"I find this very interesting in light of other events that have occurred this week," she said. "We as lawyers are so clever. There's always a loophole."
Rhodes said Stewart's comments were like a "judicial lynching" and said he has never heard of any judge treating a lawyer that way. He said Stewart had no problem postponing another case of his Monday for the same health reason.
Rhodes refused to disclose his medical condition or what medication he is taking, but Ward said the lawyer told him he has been taking codeine for several days for a mouth infection.
The pretrial motions hearing began like any other.
Timothy M. Dixon, an attorney for Espinoza, argued that the defendants should be tried separately because jurors might become confused about which evidence pertains to which defendant.
Canela and Espinoza are each charged with three counts of first-degree murder and three counts of conspiracy to commit murder.
Prosecutors believe the men used a filleting knife to slash Ricardo Solis Quezada Jr. and his sister, Lucero Solis Quezada, both 9, and their 10-year-old male cousin, Alexis Espejo Quezada, in their Fallstaff apartment May 27, 2004. One child was beheaded and the other two were nearly decapitated.
Assistant State's Attorney Sharon R. Holback said all of the evidence, which includes a glove with DNA from all three dead children, as well as from Canela and Espinoza, is relevant to both defendants.
Ward decided to keep the case as one.
Arguments during the motions also revealed that Canela has an alibi witness, his brother, who might testify that Canela was elsewhere when the crimes were committed.
Dixon argued that Jesus Hernandez should be barred from taking the stand during the joint trial because his testimony could implicate Espinoza.
Ward ruled that Hernandez can testify but that he must be made available for interviews with Dixon and Holback before taking the stand.
Then Rhodes began presenting his motions, and the hearing fell apart. Just after Ward decided to rule later on motions to exclude crime scene photos, Adam Sean Cohen, co-counsel for Canela, jumped up and asked to approach the judge.
All six attorneys conferred with the judge for about 15 minutes before Ward declared that the case might need to be delayed and that they should head to administrative court.
In Stewart's courtroom, Cohen told the judge that Rhodes wasn't himself, wasn't paying attention and had nodded off at least three times. He said it pained him to speak ill of his co-counsel but that, as an officer of the court, he felt that he had to.
"Mr. Rhodes, although present in person," Cohen told Stewart, "is not present in mind."