The murder trial of one of the three Laurel teenagers charged with killing Salvadoran immigrant Gilberto Hernandez, 40, 13 months ago is scheduled to begin today in Prince George's County Circuit Court. And after a year of controversy about how and why Hernandez was killed, prosecutors will provide their full version of events for the first time.
Laurel police originally described the attack as a stomping death that occurred after an attempted robbery. But Prince George's State's Attorney Jack B. Johnson later disputed that account and said there was no clear motive for the fatal attack.
Then, months later, prosecutors added assault charges to the murder count against the three defendants, Cochise Iraun "Cody" Queen, 18, Kelly Day Martin, 19, and Steven Darby, 17. A Laurel detective testified during a hearing on the new charges that an attempted robbery of Hernandez's two brothers preceded his death.
The unusual legal twists of the case reflect a broader conflict between Johnson and advocates for Hispanics, who say that what they see as Johnson's failure to prosecute the teenagers vigorously illustrates the unfairness in the way the county's criminal justice system deals with Latinos, whether they are victims, witnesses or defendants.
At the same time, the Justice Department continues its own civil rights investigation of the attack on Hernandez.
"The Hispanic community of Prince George's County will be watching this trial intently to ensure that fairness in the judicial system is extended to the Latino victim," said Bill Stagg, director of the county's Hispanic Resource Center. "We feel the state's attorney's office has flunked the case so far."
"It's not only going to be closely watched by people in the community," said the Rev. Brian Jordan, a Franciscan priest who has helped Hernandez's relatives and criticized Johnson. "I think many people in the state of Maryland and throughout the mid-Atlantic region will be watching closely. It definitely has wider implications."
Carmen T. Joge, senior civil rights policy analyst for the National Council of La Raza, said the nationwide Latino advocacy group is "concerned that the prosecutor's office is approaching this case in a manner that does not reflect the best interests of the Hispanic community, which calls into question our safety in the county."
Johnson declined to be interviewed for this report.
The incident that led to Hernandez's death began just after midnight on Sept. 4, 1998, as Hernandez and his two younger brothers, Tomas and Juan, were walking home from their jobs at a restaurant on nearby Route 1 and were confronted by several teenagers.
Juan and Tomas Hernandez ran and escaped injury, but Gilberto Hernandez suffered severe head injuries and died in the hospital four days later.
Based largely on the accounts of the surviving Hernandez brothers, Laurel police arrested seven teenagers, including Queen, and charged them with killing Hernandez during a robbery attempt. Charging documents filed by police detectives said two of the attackers brandished knives during the assault.
In an interview shortly after the fatal attack, Juan and Tomas Hernandez said that one of the attackers announced a robbery and that at least two of the assailants threatened them with knives. Tomas Hernandez said three attackers chased him and tried to steal his bicycle, but he wrestled the bike away and escaped into his apartment complex.
But when his office obtained murder indictments against Queen and two other teenagers and dropped charges against the four other suspects last November, Johnson said there was no apparent motive for the attack, even though prosecutors at that time had not interviewed either Juan or Tomas Hernandez.
Citing the autopsy report, Johnson said Hernandez suffered severe injuries when Queen tackled him football-style onto the pavement, with Hernandez landing on his head. Hernandez was kicked about two times, and proving who administered the fatal injury will be difficult, Johnson has said.
Johnson said his investigation was based largely on information provided by the four teenagers who initially were suspects and other witnesses. The three teenagers charged, Queen, Martin and Darby, were the only ones who chased and assaulted Gilberto Hernandez, Johnson said. Darby is scheduled to go on trial Nov. 1, with Martin's trial Nov. 15.
Assistant State's Attorney Fran Longwell, who is prosecuting the case, filed the assault charges after interviewing Juan and Tomas Hernandez in mid-April.
While prosecutors do not have to prove a motive to obtain a conviction, the distinction between a fatal attack with no clear motive and one that occurs during a robbery is crucial.
Under Maryland law, anyone who participates in a robbery attempt that results in a slaying can be charged with felony murder even if the defendant did not touch, shoot or stab the victim. Felony murder carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.
Without the robbery allegation, prosecutors would have to prove premeditation to obtain a first-degree murder conviction. Queen, Martin and Darby are charged with common-law murder, which includes first- and second-degree murder, manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter. A jury could convict on any of those charges or acquit.
"I believe in the American system of justice. I hope the truth will come out and justice will prevail," Jordan said.