Two convicted, two acquitted in suburban Virginia street gang trial
From Terry Frieden
CNN Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A federal jury in Virginia Tuesday convicted two members of a violent street gang in the slaying of a female gang member who had been a government informant.
Two others members of the MS-13 gang were acquitted in the killing of Brenda Paz.
The split verdict by a jury in Alexandria followed a closely watched monthlong capital murder trial, which prosecutors had hoped would send a strong signal to the growing number of gang members in the Virginia suburbs of the nation's capital.
In the fifth day of deliberations, the jury found Oscar Antonio Grande, 22, and Ismael Juarez Cisneros, 26, guilty on all five counts, including murder conspiracy and retaliating against an informant.
Paz, 17, was four months pregnant when she was stabbed 16 times and left on a river bank in Shenandoah County, Virginia, on July 13, 2003. She had been scheduled to testify for prosecutors in gang murder trials in Virginia and Texas.
Paz had voluntarily left the federal witness protection program just three weeks before she was murdered.
The jury will reconvene Monday for the penalty phase of the trial, which will determine whether the two will be sentenced to death or to life in prison.
Defendant Denis Rivera, 21, whom prosecutors identified as the mastermind of the Paz killing, was acquitted on all counts, although he remains in prison, where he is serving a life sentence for another murder. Paz was to have testified against Rivera in that case. Prosecutors apparently failed to persuade the jury that Rivera gave orders for the Paz killing from his jail cell.
The fourth defendant, Oscar Alexander Garcia-Orellana, also was acquitted.
The trial comes at a time when federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies are launching a major initiative to combat the brutal violence spread by MS-13 gang members in a growing number of cities.
The Justice Department reaction to the verdict came from U.S. Attorney Paul McNulty, who oversaw the trial prosecution team.
"Today's guilty verdicts are a major step forward for the cause of justice, and a step closer to victory in our battle against gang violence," McNulty said in a written statement.
"Brenda Paz was 17 years old, pregnant and a witness in a federal investigation when she was brutally murdered. Our law enforcement agencies are united in their commitment to defeat this threat of ruthless violence in our community."
Paz was born in Honduras but grew up on the streets of Los Angeles. The Mara Salvatrucha (MS) gang was first formed in the 1980s in Los Angeles by young men from El Salvador. Most clique members have family ties to Honduras or El Salvador.
Officials say the MS-13 clique in the United States has been most active in Los Angeles, New York and northern Virginia, but it is being detected now in several other regions of the country.