Trial in death of 3 kids slows during jury review


It was the fourth question yesterday that put the brakes on jury selection in the trial of two Mexican immigrants charged with killing three children last year in Northwest Baltimore.

"Does anybody believe they have heard or read anything about this case?" Baltimore Circuit Judge Thomas Ward asked a courtroom crowded with about 250 potential jurors.

When nearly all hands shot up, Ward began the tedious process of interviewing each person separately about his or her knowledge of the crime for which Policarpio Espinoza, 23, and his nephew, Adan Canela, 18, are charged.

By the end of the day, after more than five hours of selection, the judge had dismissed about 100 jurors and accepted about 50. He has about 100 left to interview today. And then there are more questions.

In one of the highest-profile Baltimore court cases in recent years, Espinoza and Canela are charged with three counts of first-degree murder in the May 2004 deaths of a 9-year-old brother and sister and their 10-year-old male cousin at the family's Fallstaff apartment. Both face life in prison if convicted.

The pair is accused of beheading one child and nearly decapitating the other two in a gruesome slaying for which neither police nor prosecutors have identified a clear motive. Attorneys for the Spanish-speaking defendants have said they plan to present theories of the crime that do not involve either Espinoza or Canela, and might name other suspects.

The trial, which involves DNA evidence and a statement Espinoza made the night of the killings, is expected to take at least four weeks, though Ward told the lawyers yesterday morning that he would like to complete it in half that time.

Jury selection could take several more days. After the judge is satisfied with the answers to his media question, the process of jury selection - called voir dire - will continue. Eventually, each of the defendants will have a chance to strike 20 jurors. Prosecutors can strike 20 more.

The final jury will be made up of 12 people, and there will be two to eight alternates.

If Ward excludes too many people from the jury pool from which the lawyers choose, he will have to call in another set of 100 or more candidates.

Jurors began yesterday in a cramped, though large, courtroom in Courthouse East. They sat shoulder-to-shoulder on the benches and stood along the walls and in the aisles. As the hours ticked by, the room took on the sticky-hot atmosphere of a high school gymnasium.

Ward's first three questions resulted in a few dozen jurors being excused. He asked whether anyone held a religious belief that would make it impossible to sit in judgment of another, whether anyone was more or less likely to believe police officers and whether anyone knew any of the lawyers, defendants or potential witnesses.

Prospective jurors passed the time by whispering, reading novels or dozing. One man could be overheard quizzing a woman who sat behind him on how he could get dismissed from jury duty.

"You just say you're prejudiced, right?" he asked.

Some of the jurors excused yesterday said the judge asked them one question, whether they'd seen pictures of the defendants on television or in the newspaper.

"I said, 'Yes,'" said Eric Allen, 42, of West Baltimore. "He said I could go."

Bob Muir, 45, of Remington said Ward asked him the same question - and that he gave the same reply. Asked later whether he could have set aside what he'd learned through the media and render a fair decision, he said he couldn't.

"I guess I would be kind of biased," he said, "against the defendants."

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