ALEXANDRIA — Defense lawyers yesterday set the stage for perhaps the most dramatic moment in the trial of four gang members charged with killing 17-year-old Brenda Paz — the testimony of one of the men charged in her brutal stabbing death.
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Lawyers for Oscar Garcia-Orellana, 32, said their client will take the witness stand this morning to give his version of the events leading to the death of Paz, who was killed July 13, 2003, four weeks after she voluntarily left the federal witness protection program.
Garcia and his three co-defendants — Denis Rivera, 21; Ismael Cisneros, 26; and Oscar Antonio Grande, 25 — are each named in a five-count indictment charging them with killing Paz to silence her.
The four are members of the Mara Salvatrucha street gang, also called MS-13, and the trial, now its in fourth week, has provided a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the gang, including its brutally enforced code of silence.
Paz, also a MS-13 member, had been assisting authorities in gang-related investigations in Virginia and several other states at the time she was killed. Testimony has showed the teenager, who was 17 weeks pregnant, was killed because she was a “rat” gang vernacular for an informant.
All four defendants have pleaded not guilty, and each could get the death penalty if convicted.
Garcia is expected to expand on a detailed statement he gave to police last year in which he admitted witnessing Paz’s death but minimized his own role. Her badly decomposed body was found on a bank of the north fork of the Shenandoah River in rural Shenandoah County four days after she was killed.
Prosecutors declined to offer the statement into evidence, prompting defense lawyers to have him testify so the jury can weigh his account. U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee set the ground rules for Garcia’s testimony, ruling prosecutors can challenge his truthfulness by introducing three prior felony convictions.
In his statement, Garcia implicates Cisneros and Grande, saying they stabbed Paz to death on the riverbank. Garcia said he was unaware MS-13 members had given a green light — gang code for an order to kill — for Paz and was shocked when Cisneros and Grande pulled out knives and began stabbing her. Garcia said he believed the group, as Paz had been told, was going fishing.
“I left running,” Garcia said in the statement, according to a transcript inspected by The Times-Dispatch before the trial. “I was scared. I was frightened. I never put a knife to somebody in my life. I had never seen someone kill somebody.”
Garcia’s account differs sharply from that of Cisneros. In a statement he gave to police, Cisneros said Garcia wrapped a rope around Paz’s neck while he and Grande stabbed her.
Garcia is expected to be subjected to aggressive cross-examination not only by prosecutors, but also from the lawyers for his co-defendants. None of the other defendants has chosen to testify.
Garcia’s lawyers already have succeeded in pointing out a flaw in the indictment against him. The document charges Garcia, who goes by the gang nickname “Gato,” with informing Rivera of Paz’s death. At the time, Rivera was in jail, awaiting trial on a gang-related murder charge. Paz was to have been a key witness against him.
But testimony has shown that it was another gang member, also nicknamed “Gato,” whose voice was captured talking to Rivera in a recorded telephone call about two weeks after Paz was killed.
In tearful testimony yesterday, Garcia’s mother, Natalia Garcia, described her son as a hard-working man who toiled mornings at a McDonald’s and evenings at a Red Lobster restaurant. She said he provided for his girlfriend and their two children and is a devoted father.
The girlfriend, Elida Viera, testified that she had no idea Garcia was a longtime member of MS-13 until he was arrested and charged in Paz’s death.
Jurors also heard from Alex Sanchez, a gang expert from Los Angeles and a former MS-13 member. He explained that many young people join gangs like MS-13 to mitigate abuse or neglect at home.
“They feel a sense of knowing that a bigger group will stand up for them, that they are not alone,” he said.
Sanchez also said most older gang members fall away from MS-13 once they reach their 30s, when younger members take leadership roles. His comments dovetailed with the assertions of Garcia’s lawyers, who claim he was a part-time gang member who was not involved in MS-13’s decision to kill Paz.
Contact Paul Bradley at (703) 548-8758 or [email protected]