Potomac News Online | Death penalty sought for N. Va. gangs

ALEXANDRIA — In a federal courtroom this week, prosecutors will ask a single jury to extinguish the lives of four alleged members of one of Virginia’s most vicious gangs.

If one needs any proof that law enforcement is taking a hard-line stance against the region’s gang problem, look no further than the cases of U.S. vs. Rivera, U.S. vs. Grande, U.S. vs. Cisneros and U.S. vs. Garcia-Orellana, with opening statements scheduled to begin Monday.

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against all four alleged members of the Latino gang Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, for the murder of Brenda Paz, a former gang member herself who was to have been a witness in a murder trial against Denis Rivera, her one-time boyfriend.

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Paz left the witness protection program against the advice of the FBI, and the teenager was found dead in July 2003 in rural Shenandoah County. Paz, who was pregnant, died of multiple stab wounds.

According to prosecutors, Rivera masterminded the killing from a jail cell while he awaited trial. Rivera told a fellow gang member that he would “plant her in a park” for snitching on him, according to the indictment.

The indictment states that Oscar Antonio Grande, Ismael Juarez Cisneros and Oscar Alexander Garcia-Orellana met with other members of their MS-13 clique in a Fairfax hotel room and decided to kill Paz. The next day, the three drove out to the country with Paz and murdered her along the banks of the Shenandoah River.

After she was killed, Rivera bragged on another call from the jail that those who “rat on ‘Conejo’ (his gang name, Spanish for “rabbit”) die. They rat and that’s it,” according to the indictment.

Police had monitored the jailhouse conversations in which Rivera allegedly planned the killing, but they said the slang words, nicknames and code words used by the defendants made it difficult to decipher the plot.

As it turned out, prosecutors were still able to introduce Paz’s testimony against Rivera through her court-appointed guardian. Rivera was convicted and sentenced to life in prison last year for the 2001 murder of Joaquim Diaz.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information center, said it’s rare but not unprecedented for a single jury to hear four death-penalty cases.

“The difficulty for the defense is to make sure their client gets individual consideration and are are not lumped together,” Dieter said.

The trial is just a small part of a regional crackdown on MS-13 and other gangs that have been implicated in a series of high-profile attacks in Northern Virginia. In several recent incidents, victims have been hacked by machetes and had fingers severed from their hands.

Many attacks have occurred in relatively quiet suburban areas unaccustomed to gang violence. Last week, a 14-year-old boy was beaten with baseball bats and stabbed at a mall in Manassas in an apparent dispute between rival gangs. Another machete attack occurred earlier this year at a multiplex theater in suburban Merrifield.

Authorities have responded with creation of a regional gang task force, aggressive prosecutions like the Paz trial, and efforts to round up and deport gang members in the country illegally.

In the past week, immigration police arrested 15 MS-13 members in Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C., on administrative immigration violations. Authorities are seeking to have all deported. About 50 MS-13 members in this region, most from Northern Virginia, have been arrested in the last two months, said Allan Doody, the special agent-in-charge of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Washington field office.

Doody said it’s clear that recent anti-gang efforts have disrupted gang activity, with as many as 50 gang members from the area arrested in the last few months.

“We know we have dismatled whole cliques within certain gangs,” Doody said. “We have driven some gangs from this area into other states. We know we have changed behaviors. … If our efforts mean that gangs are spending more time avoiding my agents and less time on criminal activity, then, yes, that is a victory.”

Jerry Keys, a sergeant with the Herndon Police Department and a spokesman for a regional gang task force, said that aggressive prosecution of gang members deters gang activity. The prospect of lengthy prison sentences often spurs a gang member to cut deals and provide information that helps police, he said.

The ultimate way to deter gang violence, though, is to stop young people from joining gangs, which is why educational an social programs are in place to steer kids away from gangs, he said.

“We can keep filling up the jails, but it won’t do much good if we don’t prevent kids from joining these gangs,” Keys said.

Frank Salvato, who represents Garcia-Orellana, one of the four charged in Paz’s death, said that in this case he sees little reason to believe the government’s prosecution will be a deterent.

“All of these guys basically come from the same type of background — broken homes, poverty,” Salvato said. “Giving these four guys the death penalty, with their individual backgrounds, is not going to deter any future conduct by anybody.”

Salvato acknowledged the difficulty of defending alleged MS-13 members when the community has been frightened by the gang’s actions.

Final jury selection will take place today from a pool of 88 who have already been qualified to serve as jurors. The four defendants will collectively be allowed to strike 40 potential jurors from the panel, while prosecutors can strike 20.

“If the jury gives these guys individual consideration, we will not be in bad shape,” Salvato said.

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