At first, the beating death of Ashley A. Urias, 38, in a Suitland cemetery in May appeared to be a tragic but unremarkable end to a night of heavy drinking and spontaneous brawling among four intoxicated men.
After investigating, however, Prince George's County police and prosecutors concluded that the beating was a planned hit on a gang rival by members of Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, a gang responsible for an increasing amount of violence in the Washington area, according to officials.
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When one of three men charged in the killing, Mario Ayala, 21, of Suitland, went on trial for first-degree murder this week, Prince George's prosecutors used a novel approach. They showcased evidence of Ayala's membership in MS-13. And in what may be a first in Maryland, prosecutors called a gang expert to testify about the gang's violent nature.
A Fairfax County gang detective, Michael Porter, testified that MS-13 gang members are obligated by their gang compatriots to attack rival gang members.
After deliberating for about three hours over two days, a Circuit Court jury convicted Ayala yesterday of first-degree murder.
The expert testimony on gang life was "not only critical to the case, I think it will be useful in future prosecutions of gang activity," said Prince George's State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey.
Prosecutors and court officials said they believe the testimony by Detective Michael Porter of the Fairfax County police gang unit marked the first time a gang expert testified in a criminal trial in Maryland. There is no case law on the issue in Maryland, attorneys involved in the case said.
Latino gangs, including MS-13, which is comprised primarily of Salvadoran immigrants, have in recent years drawn increased attention from police in Maryland, Virginia and the District.
Northern Virginia officials have said that 10 murders have been committed by Latino gang members since 2000.
In the District, three members of the Latino gang Vatos Locos were convicted in D.C. Superior Court last month of carrying out a conspiracy that left four rival gang members dead.
In Prince George's, three members of MS-13, including one of Ayala's co-defendants, are facing murder charges, said Assistant State's Attorney Laura J. Gwinn, chief of the state's attorney's violent crimes unit.
Porter's testimony was crucial in obtaining a first-degree murder conviction, said Gwinn, who said in her closing statement that Ayala and two co-defendants decided to attack Urias after they learned he was with a rival gang.
According to testimony, Ayala and two other men -- his cousin, Alexis Ayala, 22; and friend Everec Alvarez-Chacon, 27 -- were drinking with Urias in the Suitland area in the early hours of May 22.
Urias offered to buy more beer, and the men piled into a truck allegedly driven by Alvarez-Chacon. After Urias purchased beer at a convenience store, Alvarez-Chacon drove to Washington National Cemetery in Suitland, according to prosecutors.
After he was arrested, Mario Ayala told Prince George's police that he was urinating in the cemetery when he heard a commotion, and saw Urias threatening to kill his cousin and friend with a baseball bat.
Ayala said he picked up a golf club from the bed of the truck and struck Urias once. During the evening, Ayala said, he learned that Urias was a member of a gang known as 18th Street. Urias was badly beaten about the head and died of blunt force trauma.
Porter testified that 18th Street is MS-13's chief rival. MS-13 gang members are expected by fellow members "to, in their words, get at members of 18th Street. No question," Porter testified. Failing to attack a rival would lead to a beating, Porter testified.
Gwinn, in an interview, said Porter's testimony put the attack in context. "Otherwise, it's just four drunk guys in a fight," she said.
Circuit Court Judge C. Phillip Nichols Jr. scheduled Ayala's sentencing for March 25. Alexis Ayala has pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and is awaiting sentencing. Alvarez-Chacon is awaiting trial for first-degree murder.