Friday, February 27, 2009

Turnpike slayings: Defense says state's case weak, built on bullets

WEST PALM BEACH — Defense attorney Michael Cohen stood in front of a federal jury Thursday morning, holding several bullets in his hands.

"You're looking at the government's case right here," he said, pushing toward them the evidence prosecutors say ties Cohen's client, Ricardo Sanchez, to the brutal 2006 killings of a family of four along Florida's Turnpike.

Cohen and other attorneys on Thursday finished giving jurors the final words they will hear from them before deciding the fates of Sanchez, Daniel Troya, Danny Varela and Liana Lopez.

Sanchez and Troya, accused of killing Jose Luis Escobedo and his family, could be put to death if convicted on related charges. Both allegedly worked for Varela, whom Assistant U.S. Attorney John Kastrenakes described as a drug kingpin who used Escobedo as a connection to cocaine sources in Mexico.

Varela is not charged in the deaths, but he and sometime girlfriend Lopez are on trial with the two others on related drug and weapons charges.

Cohen and Troya's attorney, Ruben Garcia, continued offering jurors the alternative "Matamoros" theory of the crimes just as Varela's attorney, Robert Gershman, did in closing statements Wednesday, saying that a debt Escobedo owed to the Mexican cartel might have led them to kill him, his wife Yessica and their 4- and 3-year-old sons, Luis Julian and Luis Damian.

Cohen conceded that Sanchez was on the highway at the time of the deaths but did not participate in the killings. He also brought out a theory that Yessica Escobedo's cellphone somehow wound up in Texas the night after the murders, saying it was possible someone else entirely was involved in the crimes.

During most of the closing arguments of Lopez's attorney, Gregg Lerman, he posted on a projector screen a photo I.D. of his client from John I. Leonard High School, a red-and-yellow-butterfly sticker above a picture of her smiling sweetly. He described her as an emotionally immature girl sucked into a fast life of drugs and alcohol and used by a man who kept her as his mistress though he was married and had other girlfriends.

"She's a girlfriend or a hanger-on at best," Lerman said.

Kastrenakes, in the government's rebuttal arguments, almost literally scoffed at Lerman's portrayal of Lopez, referencing a 2006 home invasion robbery and her own prior arrest when she was caught with 2 kilos of cocaine as instances that should have led her to sever ties with the group.

He also countered the theory that the Escobedos were killed by Mexican drug cartel members, saying if Escobedo owed them money, they would have opted for kidnapping his family and threatening to kill them unless he came up with the money.

Kastrenakes' boldest statement came in rebuttals to statements from defense attorneys who wondered aloud why Varela wasn't charged in the deaths.

The government declined murder charges because it didn't have enough evidence, Kastrenakes said, but investigators are still pursuing leads and could charge Varela if more evidence comes to light.

He ended the day by showing jurors photos of the bodies of Luis Julian and Luis Damian.

They were left on the side of the road like trash, Kastrenakes said.

"It's not right," he said.

Jurors are expected to begin deliberations Monday.


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