By DAPHNE DURET
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 15, 2009
STUART — For the murders of Jose Luis Escobedo and his young family, convicted killers Daniel Troya and Ricardo Sanchez in less than two weeks could join the small but growing population of inmates on the federal government's Death Row.
If the 12-member jury that convicted them this month opts for capital punishment at the end of the hearing that begins today, the number of federal Death Row inmates will grow to 57 - a number that, according to death penalty experts, has increased at a time when similar numbers in the state system have dropped.
It would mark the first time the federal death penalty has been imposed in Florida since it was reinstated in 1988.
To secure the death sentence against the pair, both 25, prosecutors plan to rely mostly on evidence presented during their weeks-long trial in the Oct. 13, 2006, shooting deaths of Escobedo, his wife, Yessica, and their 3- and 4-year-old sons, Luis Damian and Luis Julian, along Florida's Turnpike at Port St. Lucie.
Defense attorneys for Sanchez and Troya, meanwhile, will try to get jurors to spare the men's lives by showing that violence in their upbringings led them to commit crimes as adults.
At a hearing Tuesday, Troya's attorney James Eisenberg told U.S. District Judge Daniel T.K. Hurley that he intends to present testimony that Troya suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, fueled in large part by the shooting death of his best friend when he was 13.
Sanchez's attorney Donnie Murrell hinted there were some domestic violence issues between Sanchez's parents when he was growing up and that he has a low IQ.
Over objections from Assistant U.S. Attorney John Kastrenakes, Murrell expects to bring in the psychologist who examined Sanchez's older brother who set fire to the family's house while Sanchez was growing up. The brother was arrested on arson charges. Declared to be mentally retarded and unfit to stand trial, he is housed at a forensic hospital in Chattahoochee, Murrell said.
"This gives some insight as to what it was like to grow up in that environment," Murrell said.
When Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Carlton filed notice that the government planned to seek the death penalty more than a year ago, he outlined several factors that jurors could use to determine whether the punishment is warranted, including the ages of the two slain boys and the facts that multiple people were killed and that the killings showed a reckless disregard for human life.
Carlton cited the effect of the Escobedos' deaths on their families. U.S. Department of Justice attorney Richard Burns will introduce testimony from up to four family members this week.
Jose Luis Escobedo's mother and sister, Rosario Escobedo and Rita Escobedo Flores, and Yessica Escobedo's mother and aunt, Sara Guerrero and Monica Moreno, attended each day of the trial and are expected to be in the courtroom for the penalty phase.
Carlton previously sought to show jurors that both men posed a future danger to others, but Kastrenakes told Hurley on Tuesday that prosecutors have abandoned that argument.
Richard Dieter, executive director for the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, said the omission may not have an adverse effect on the prosecutors' case because a jury needs to find only that prosecutors proved one of their aggravating factors - facts that increase the degree of culpability - beyond a reasonable doubt in order to move toward a death sentence.
From there, Dieter said, jurors would have to believe that the factor outweighed any other defense evidence before returning a death sentence.
If jurors cannot make a unanimous decision on a verdict, attorneys in the case said in court, then Sanchez and Troya will get a life sentence by default.
Federal rules say that in case of a split, the decision goes to a judge, but the judge cannot impose a penalty harsher than 110 years in prison.
Dieter said only a third of defendants for whom prosecutors seek the death penalty actually get that punishment, but results vary widely based on the severity of the crime.
According to his center's statistics, federal juries handed out 36 death sentences between 2001 to 2007, more than doubling the number from the seven-year period before then.
The increase over much of the past decade, death penalty experts say, has come during the tenures of former U.S. Attorneys General John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales, who pushed aggressively for capital punishment and at times were at odds with prosecutors who wanted to opt for plea bargains guaranteeing life sentences.
"There can be a political side to that," Dieter said. "I don't know whether that was a factor in this particular case, but it has been for some."
In the past the U.S. Attorney's Office typically would defer to prosecutors when it came to seeking capital punishment, he said.
It's too soon to tell how recently appointed Attorney General Eric Holder will handle capital punishment during President Obama's administration, Dieter added.
Death sentences for Sanchez and Troya would bring them to the federal Death Row facility in Terre Haute, Ind., the execution site for Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and two others since then.
Hearings for Troya and Sanchez are expected to last until next week.