updated 9/21/2006 8:36:58 PM ET 2006-09-22T00:36:58

Two men were sentenced to life in prison for the near-decapitation murders of three of their young relatives, slayings the judge said were meant to send a message to their families.

The sentences for the children’s uncle Policarpio Espinoza, 24, and cousin Adan Canela, 19, allowed no possibility of parole.

The two were convicted last month of the May 2004 slayings of Lucero Espinoza, 8; her brother Ricardo Espinoza Jr., 9; and their 10-year-old male cousin, Alexis Espejo Quezada.

Prosecutors could never define a clear motive but suggested that family members knew more than they let on about the mysterious case, which sickened even hardened detectives in a city that perennially has one of the nation’s highest homicide rates.

Police said the boys were strangled and the girl was hit in the head with a baseball bat before their necks were cut within inches of decapitation.

“The deaths of these children stood as a message for others,” Judge David Mitchell said.

He said there was evidence that some family members knew about the murder plan “and did nothing to intercede.”

An immigration issue?
A defense attorney suggested the children may have been killed because their families hadn’t paid for being smuggled into the United States when the family immigrated from Tenenexpan, a small town in the Mexican state of Veracruz.

Ricardo Espinoza Perez, the father of Lucero and Ricardo, said last month that he doesn’t believe smugglers he used could have been responsible. He said he didn’t owe them money and that the killings happened about seven years after he and his family entered the country.

Noemi Espinoza Quezada, the mother of Lucero and Ricardo, said the killings traumatized her family but called the trial was “unfair” and said she believed the evidence was insufficient for convictions.

“The truth is, I am not satisfied with what has been done,” she said through a translator.

Maria Andrea Espejo Quezada, the mother of Alexis, said she wanted the defendants to “tell us what was the motive of what they have done to the children.”

Policarpio Espinoza declined to give a statement before sentencing. Canela wept as he maintained his innocence.

“I want to tell my family I didn’t do this,” he told the judge between sobs.

Canela said he loved his cousins and spoke of how he and the family came to the United States to pursue dreams of better lives.

“Now look at what’s been done to me,” he said.

The defendants were tried twice. The first trial ended in a hung jury in August 2005.

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