Two members of the MS-13 street gang were convicted Tuesday of murdering a pregnant teenager who had become an informant. Two others were acquitted of all charges.
One of those acquitted was Denis Rivera, 22, who prosecutors said masterminded the slaying of his former girlfriend, 17-year-old Brenda Paz.
On Monday, the jury will hear evidence in the sentencing phase of the case against the two who were convicted, Ismael Juarez Cisneros, 26, and Oscar Antonio Grande, 22. Both could get the death penalty.
Paz was found stabbed to death on the banks of the Shenandoah River in 2003, just weeks after she left the federal Witness Protection Program. She was to have testified in a murder case against Rivera, who was in jail at the time.
Rivera’s attorneys argued that numerous gang members wanted Paz dead for snitching, and that a gang leader in Texas gave the order to kill her.
Prosecutors played recordings of jailhouse conversations between Rivera and others and said they were using gang slang and code words to order Paz’s death.
Said he ran from the crime
The other gang member who was acquitted — Oscar Garcia-Orellana — admitted he was present at Paz’s killing but denied he participated. Prosecutors argued that he held Paz by the throat while two others stabbed her more than a dozen times.
Garcia-Orellana, 32, took the stand in his own defense and testified that he believed, just like Paz, that he was simply going on a fishing trip. He testified that when he saw the murder take place, he ran away.
Rivera was convicted in the earlier murder case, despite Paz’s slaying, and is serving life in prison.
The trial shed light on the inner workings of MS-13, a gang with roots in El Salvador that has become the target of a federal crackdown. The gang is particularly large and violent, known for beheading enemies and staging attacks with grenades and machetes.
Numerous gang members testified at the trial, describing a nomadic existence in which the gang’s female members would panhandle for money to rent hotel rooms, where dozens of gang members would sleep on the floor until they were kicked out.
Trouble for Witness Protection Program
The trial also exposed the failure of the Witness Protection Program to properly handle an undisciplined teen like Paz. Despite a psychological report that urged close monitoring, testimony indicated that Paz was left largely unsupervised.
Her handlers moved her from an FBI safe house in Silver Spring, Md., to Philadelphia to Kansas City to Minnesota, but Paz continually threw parties for gang members while in witness protection that included underage drinking, drug use and sex for money, according to testimony.