ALEXANDRIA – The sprawling trial of four gang members charged with murdering 17-year-old Brenda Paz neared its most critical point yesterday – the moment when jurors will retire behind closed doors to decide the men’s legal fate.
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On the first day of the trial’s fifth week, prosecutors and lawyers for three of the four defendants completed their closing arguments, agreeing on the essential facts of the case but differing sharply on many critical details jurors ultimately must decide.
The jury is expected to get the case today after lawyers for the sole defendant to testify in his own defense, Oscar “Gato” Garcia-Orellana, present their summation, followed by a final rebuttal statement by the prosecution.
While the complexity of the case was underscored by the fact that jury instructions consumed more than an hour, Assistant U.S. Attorney Patricia Giles said the case is, in reality, very simple.
Paz was killed July 13, 2003, about a month after she voluntarily left the federal witness program. She was stabbed to death because she was a government informant – a “rat,” in the vernacular of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, also called MS-13, Giles said. Paz had been providing information to gang investigators in Virginia and several other states.
But lawyers for two of the gang members on trial argued that the government is also to blame for failing to protect Paz after police had been told her life was in danger.
For violating the gang’s ruthlessly enforced code of silence, Paz paid with her life, Giles said. The pregnant teenager’s body was dumped on a bank of the Shenandoah River’s North Fork, about 100 miles west of Washington.
“Brenda Paz had no idea she would die a horrible death at the hands of the four defendants seated before you,” Giles said. “To these four defendants, she was nothing more than a rat, a snitch. These four defendants killed her because she was a witness.”
The stakes in the outcome of the trial could scarcely be higher, she told the jury.
“There is no greater threat to our system of justice than an attack on a witness,” Giles said. “Witnesses are our lifeblood.”
Prosecutors argued that Paz was killed on the orders of 21-year-old Denis “Conejo” Rivera in an attempt to prevent her from testifying against him in a 2003 gang-related murder. Along with the 32-year-old Garcia, Ismael “Arana” Cisneros, 26, and Oscar “Pantera” Antonio Grande, 22, are charged with planning and carrying out the killing. All four defendants have pleaded not guilty. If convicted, they could get the death penalty.
Giles urged the jury to listen to more than two dozen tape recordings in which Rivera, while in jail, is alleged to have orchestrated the killing of Paz because she was preparing to testify against him.
“The most compelling and damning witness against Denis Rivera is Denis Rivera,” she said. “Those calls are his voice, his plot and ultimately his order for her murder.”
But Rivera’s lawyer, Jerome P. Aquino, said prosecutors charged the wrong man. Numerous other MS-13 members wanted Paz dead, Aquino said. He said Rivera’s tough talk came at the urging of police officers.
While he was locked up, Rivera had been talking to authorities, Aquino said, and police “wanted him to maintain a front with members of the gang so as to more easily solicit information.”
Rivera even told police on several occasions that Paz was in danger, having run afoul of gang leaders in Texas, California and El Salvador, Aquino said. Yet officials were unable to keep her alive, he said.
“The government needs your verdict in this case in order to absolve themselves from the sins they’ve committed,” he said.
Cisneros’ lawyer, Nina J. Ginsberg, agreed that the government must bear some responsibility for the death of Paz. While authorities were eager to get the information she had, they cared little about what might happen to her next, Ginsberg said. Paz was placed in witness protection, but she was poorly supervised and repeatedly contacted gang members, Ginsberg said.
“One day after Paz was arrested, a law-enforcement feeding frenzy started,” she said. Police “couldn’t get to her cell fast enough.”
Ginsberg pointedly criticized Gregory Hunter, who was appointed Paz’s legal guardian when she first came into police custody in 2002. Within a day of his appointment, Hunter had called authorities and said Paz wanted to talk and make a deal.
But Hunter paid little attention to the potential consequences of Paz’s cooperation, Ginsberg said, adding that when Paz called Hunter just four days before she died, he did nothing.
“He didn’t pick up the phone, . . . he didn’t call gang investigators,” she said. “He knew she was in trouble, and he left her, just like everyone else left her.”
Grande’s lawyer, Luis Felipe Restrepo, told the jury that prosecutors have not proved their case.
“This case is not about innocence,” he said. “This case is about whether the government has proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Like the other defense lawyers, Restrepo urged jurors to question the credibility of several gang members who provided damaging testimony during the trial but minimized their own roles in the plot to kill Paz. He said the government witnesses all had ample reason to lie or shade the truth.
For example, Restrepo said, gang leader Luis “Cabro” Membrano-Baharona, who attended an MS-13 meeting the night before Paz was killed, where the slaying plot allegedly was cemented, testified in exchange for getting a government-sponsored visa allowing him to stay in the United States.
William “Diablo” Garcia, who testified that Grande told him he had killed Paz, is getting the same benefit. Johnny “Filosifo” Leonard received immunity from prosecution for his role in Paz’s death. And Joel “Sharkey” Reyes-Mattos testified in hopes his 30-year prison term will be reduced.
“These folks are walking, talking, breathing reasonable doubt,” he said. Would you trust these people to walk your dog or park your car?”
The trial resumes this morning in U.S. District Court in Alexandria.
Contact Paul Bradley at (703) 548-8758 or [email protected]