A murder trial in Prince George's Circuit Court two weeks ago, in which a young Suitland man was convicted of first-degree murder, offered an unusual glimpse into a Latino gang that officials say is responsible for an increasing amount of violence in the Washington area.
After a three-day trial, including deliberations, a jury on Jan. 28 found Mario Ayala, 21, guilty of murdering Ashley A. Urias, 38.
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Prince George's prosecutors said they believe the key testimony was that of a gang unit detective from Fairfax County who testified as an expert witness about the violent nature of the gang that prosecutors said Ayala belonged to.
Prosecutors said they believed it was the first time a gang expert had testified as an expert witness in a criminal trial in Prince George's County.
Urias was beaten to death in a Suitland cemetery May 22 after a night of heavy drinking with Ayala, Ayala's cousin and a friend of Ayala's. Urias was beaten with a baseball bat and a golf club, according to court testimony.
Ayala told police he hit Urias once in the leg with a golf club. Ayala said he grabbed the club from a truck his friend had driven to the cemetery after he saw Urias menacing his friend and his cousin with a baseball bat, threatening to kill them.
Prince George's police and prosecutors concluded that the killing wasn't just the tragic end of a night of heavy drinking. They said it was a planned hit on a gang rival by members of Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13.
In the home Ayala shared with his cousin, Alexis Ayala, 22, police found athletic jerseys in blue and white with the number "13." Members of MS-13 are known to wear jerseys with that number in those colors. The defendant had a tattoo that indicated membership in MS-13, police said. Police also found photos of the Ayalas flashing gang hand signals.
Assistant State's Attorney Laura J. Gwinn told jurors that the defendant had learned Urias was a member of 18th Street, Mara Salvatrucha's chief rival.
Gwinn argued that Ayala helped lure Urias with the intention of attacking him. Ayala's cousin and friend also belong to MS-13, prosecutors said.
To buttress her argument, Gwinn called to the witness stand a detective who hadn't investigated the killing: Michael Porter, a member of the Fairfax County police gang unit.
Porter, a 10-year veteran of the unit, testified that members of MS-13 would face punishment from fellow members if they encountered an 18th Street gang rival and didn't attack him.
"MS-13 members are expected to, in their words, 'get at' members of 18th Street. No question," Porter testified.
An MS-13 member would not be expected to stand by if his gang compatriots were involved in a fight, Porter testified. "Everybody's considered a soldier if something happens," he said.
If an MS-13 member encountered a gang rival and failed to attack, he'd be disciplined after fellow members convened a "court" to determine the punishment, Porter testified.
The gang member would face one of three punishments, Porter testified: A 13-second beating, a 26-second beating or a 36-second beating. The latter could involve bats, machetes and guns, he testified.
Porter said MS-13 emerged in the mid-1980s in Los Angeles, in the MacArthur Park area patrolled by the Rampart division of the Los Angeles Police Department. The neighborhood is known as "Little El Salvador."
Initially, some members of the Mexican Mafia, a California prison gang, demanded that Mara Salvatrucha pay a "street tax," Porter testified. When Mara Salvatrucha refused, the Mexican Mafia killed some Mara Salvatrucha members, Porter testified.
Porter described MS-13 as a "header gang," with smaller cliques. To join MS-13, one has to join a specific clique, Porter testified.
Ayala is scheduled to be sentenced March 25. Alexis Ayala, 22, his cousin, has pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and is to be sentenced March 17. The third defendant, Everec Alvarez-Chacon, 27, is scheduled to be tried on a first-degree murder charge May 16.