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Conspiracy, no murder conviction in children’s deaths

The split verdict in the case of a man accused in the near-beheadings of his three young relatives may have been a compromise reflecting the jury’s inability to determine which of two defendants was at fault, local criminal defense attorneys said.

Prosecutors did not identify a motive for Policarpio Espinoza Perez in the murder of three children.

After his third trial in Baltimore City Circuit Court, Policarpio Espinoza Perez, 31, was convicted of three counts of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder in the deaths of the 8- to 10-year-old children; however, he was acquitted of second-degree murder and Judge M. Brooke Murdock declared a mistrial on a first-degree murder charge.

“I think the key is that the jury is convicting [him] of an agreement to commit a crime, but not convicting him of a substantial act,” said criminal defense attorney Andrew Radding, of Adelberg, Rudow, Dorf & Hendler LLC in Baltimore. “Basically, the jury is saying he is involved.”

What remains to be seen is whether similar issues will affect the murder trial of Espinoza Perez’s alleged co-conspirator, which is set to begin next week.

After the first trial of Espinoza Perez and his nephew, Adan Canela, the jury couldn’t reach a unanimous verdict and the judge declared a mistrial.

In their second trial, the two were convicted and sentenced to life in prison, but the decision was overturned when an appeals court said the judge failed to disclose several jury notes which could have influenced the verdict.

“We appreciate the jury’s hard work, and we are gratified by the outcome,” Baltimore City State’s Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein said in a statement after Tuesday’s verdict.

Based on the three conspiracy convictions, Espinoza Perez faces a maximum sentence of three life terms in prison, Bernstein’s statement noted.

Canela, 26, is slated to go to trial on Monday, April 1.

Criminal defense attorney Russell A. Neverdon Sr., a solo attorney in Baltimore, said he thought it likely that Canela would receive the same verdict as Espinoza Perez.

“I think the conspiracy conviction is really the glue that holds state’s case together,” Neverdon said. “If one is guilty, so is the other. It will probably end up playing out as guilty by association.”

Joseph Murtha, a criminal defense attorney at Miller Murtha & Psoras LLC in Lutherville, said the future is less straightforward for Canela since it is unclear why the jury chose not to convict Espinoza Perez of murder; that is, whether they thought Canela was the actual murderer or they could not identify who killed the children.

“In light of the history of the case — where there was a hung jury, then a conviction and the case was reversed and remanded — it’s obviously presented a problem with fact-finders in the past, so this jury made a decision that could represent a compromise, and it’s not unusual,” said Murtha.

Middle ground

Neverdon said he has been seeing an increasing number of split verdicts from Baltimore juries recently.

“What I’m seeing a pattern of in Baltimore city is that juries are beginning to try to compromise as opposed to just voting their conscience,” Neverdon said. “They say, ‘I’m not convinced completely one way, but I’m not convinced completely the other way.’ They try to find a middle ground that alleviates any doubts or issues they have.”

Neverdon defended Michael Maurice Johnson in the murder of North Carolina teenager Phylicia Barnes earlier this year. The jury in that case issued a verdict in February convicting Johnson of second-degree murder, but acquitting him of a first -degree murder charge.

“I’m seeing a trend of that,” Neverdon said. “There probably should be a trained neutral party in the room with the jury to help with following law and facts, and not hypotheses they come up with.”

Murtha and Neverdon said juries today are more knowledgeable about the judicial system, and their verdicts sometimes reflect that.

“Jurors are more educated today and believe they are empowered to make decisions that sometimes don’t reflect what everyone else thinks should happen, but what they believe,” Murtha said.

He also said it is possible that Canela’s defense could try to move next week’s trial out of Baltimore, given the added publicity caused by Tuesday’s verdicts.

Past and future

Espinoza Perez and Canela were accused of slashing the throats of Lucero Espinoza, 8; her brother Ricardo Espinoza, 9; and their cousin, Alexis Espejo Quezada, 10, in a Northwest Baltimore apartment in 2004.

During this year’s trial, as in the prior trials, prosecutors could not pinpoint a motive for Espinoza Perez, but said the law did not require the prosecution to prove why he would have slain the children.

“After multiple trials, the prosecution learns from the mistakes of past trials and refines a case to such a degree that they make a better effort to eliminate errors that resulted in a hung jury or acquittal in the past,” Murtha said.

Neverdon said the jury was overwhelmed by too many details and too much information, which led to the split verdict.

“I think the issue probably was the quantity of information and not really simplifying it. That was probably the difference” between the conspiracy conviction and a conviction of murder,” Neverdon said. “The average person really wants to be told where the dots are and shown where to connect them.”

Espinoza Perez’s defense, however, argued that the prosecution did not have enough evidence to link Espinoza Perez to the murder.

The parents of two of the children have always maintained they thought the wrong people were arrested.

An attorney for Espinoza Perez, Nicholas Panteleakis, told The Baltimore Sun he plans to file a motion for a new trial and to appeal the verdict. Panteleakis could not be reached for comment.

Neverdon, though, said he thought it unlikely the verdict would be overturned on an appeal.

“From a legal standpoint, it’s going to be hard to overturn a factual determination by jurors,” Neverdon said. “They are the determiners of fact.”

Espinoza Perez will be sentenced at a hearing April 29.