ALEXANDRIA — The case of four gang members charged with killing 17-year-old Brenda Paz is expected to go to the jury Monday, after defense testimony ended yesterday.
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After hearing testimony from nearly 60 witnesses during four weeks, jurors will be asked to decide whether the four men — all members of the Mara Salvatrucha street gang — are guilty of plotting and carrying out Paz’s murder to stop her from providing information to police.
The pregnant teenager was killed July 13, 2003, about four weeks after voluntarily leaving the federal witness-protection program. She had been a member of the gang, which is commonly called MS-13, and had been assisting authorities in gang-related investigations in Virginia and several other states. Prosecutors say she was killed because she was a “snitch,” violating the gang’s ruthlessly-enforced code of silence.
Named in a five-count federal indictment are Denis Rivera, 21; Oscar Antonio Grande, 22; Ismael Cisneros, 26; and Oscar Garcia-Orellana, 32. All four defendants have pleaded not guilty, and each could get the death penalty if convicted.
Should the defendants be convicted of the most serious charges against them, jurors will decide during a sentencing phase whether to impose the death penalty.
Garcia, the only one among the accused to take the stand in his own defense, was the final witness. In two days, he spent nearly nine hours on the witness stand giving his version of the events leading to Paz’s stabbing death.
According to his account, Garcia was an unwitting witness to Paz’s slaying.
Speaking through an interpreter, he said he did not know that Paz had been targeted for death when he accompanied her, Cisneros and Grande on what he be- lieved was to be a fishing trip on the North Fork of the Shenandoah River near Mount Jackson. He said he was stunned when he saw Cisneros and Grande stab Paz more than a dozen times.
Lawyers for Cisneros and Grande subjected Garcia to aggressive questioning. They combed over details of his story and history as a gang member, trying to undermine his credibility.
While wavering on a few details, Garcia mostly stuck to the essence of his claim that he did not harm Paz. He insisted he did not know MS-13 had given her a “green light” — gang code for an order to kill — until after she was dead.
Those assertions contrast with prosecution claims that Garcia wrapped a rope around Paz’s neck and held her while Cisneros and Grande stabbed her.
Less thorny were questions from lawyers for Rivera, who is accused to ordering Paz to be killed from his Fairfax County jail cell. Rivera was awaiting trial on a gang-related murder charge, and Paz was to have been a principal witness against him.
Garcia said he never knew Rivera prior to their both being charged in Paz’s slaying. His testimony bolstered the claim of Rivera’s lawyers claim that someone other than Rivera ordered the killing. Testimony has shown that Paz made numerous enemies among MS-13 members, and several of them wanted her dead.
Contact Paul Bradley at (703) 548-8758 or [email protected]