ALEXANDRIA – Prosecutors laid the legal groundwork Thursday to introduce what they consider some of the most potent evidence against four gang members charged with killing Brenda Paz – the defendants’ own words.
During a day of painstaking and often tedious testimony, police officers described how they came into possession of dozens of letters and tapes of telephone conversations in which Paz’s murder was discussed. Nearly all of the calls and letters came from 21-year-old Denis Rivera, the Mara Salvatrucha gang leader prosecutors accuse of masterminding the plot to kill Paz.
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Rivera and three other gang members – Oscar Antonio Grande, 25; Ismael Juarez Cisneros, 26; and Oscar Alexander Garcia-Orellana, 31 – are on trial in U.S. District Court on charges they planned and carried out Paz’s killing to prevent her from testifying against Rivera at his 2003 murder trial. Rivera was convicted anyway and sentenced to a life prison term.
Each defendant could get the death penalty if convicted, and each has pleaded not guilty.
Paz’s body was found on a bank of the Shenandoah River’s North Fork on July 17, 2003, about a month after she voluntarily left the federal witness protection program. She had been assisting in gang-related investigation in Virginia and several other states.
Faced with a dearth of physical evidence and no eyewitnesses, prosecutors are relying on the defendants’ own statements to police and the testimony of informants to prove Paz was the victim of a deadly plot to silence her.
Several members of Mara Salvatrucha – also called MS-13 – are expected to test the gang’s ruthlessly-enforced code of silence by testifying in the case. In return, those testifying will get concessions such as immunity from prosecution, reduced jail time or special visas allowing them to stay in the country.
The hazards inherent in that approach were underscored yesterday when U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee issued a warrant for the arrest of an MS-13 member scheduled to testify in the case.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ronald L. Walutes Jr. said Jose Amadeo Barahona, who goes by the gang nickname “Mousy,” is now missing, and asked Lee to direct U.S. marshals to find him. He is considered to be a key witness linking the defendants to the crime.
The use of the letters and phone calls, taped while Rivera was jailed in Arlington and Fairfax counties, promises to be nearly as difficult. The phone calls and letters are in Spanish, and defense lawyers are contesting the accuracy of translations into English. The lawyers contend the translations distort the meaning of slang terms found in the letters and phone calls.
Translator Maria Horvath testified that she listened to hundreds of hours of taped phone conversations and never heard Rivera explicitly direct anyone to kill Paz. Prosecutors contend, however, that Rivera was speaking in gang code to avoid being implicated in the plot.
Defense lawyers plan to introduce their own translations, and ultimately, it will be left the jury to decide which version is accurate.
Jurors were told that the letters written by Rivera were seized from a jail cell of another MS-13 member. The phone calls were captured by tape-recording systems installed in the county jails. They record all calls dialed from jail by inmates. The material was turned over to investigators and translated.
The letter and phone material is expected to be introduced into evidence when the trial resumes Monday morning.
Paul Bradley is a staff writer at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.