Citing the brutality of the crime, a Prince George's County Circuit Court judge yesterday went well beyond state guidelines and sentenced a Laurel teenager to 15 years in prison for his role in the highly publicized September 1998 slaying of Salvadoran immigrant Gilberto Hernandez.
Dressed in a bright orange jail jumpsuit, Cochise Iraun "Cody" Queen, 18, showed no emotion as Circuit Court Judge E. Allen Shepherd sentenced him to 10 years in prison for involuntary manslaughter and five years in prison for second-degree assault, for attacking Gilberto's younger brother, Juan. Shepherd ordered that the sentences be served consecutively.
State sentencing guidelines call for a maximum sentence of six years in prison for the two crimes for someone without a prior adult conviction, such as Queen. When one of Queen's attorneys, Steven M. Jacoby, asked Shepherd why he was going beyond the guidelines, the judge replied, "The reason . . . is the especially brutal nature of the crimes."
Hernandez, 40, was attacked by Queen and up to five other teenagers shortly before midnight Sept. 4, 1998, as Hernandez and two of his brothers, Juan and Tomas, were going home from their jobs at a Laurel restaurant.
The two younger brothers escaped injury, but Gilberto was tackled by Queen with such force that he flew into the air backward, the back of his head landing on concrete, cracking his skull from the base to the hairline, according to trial testimony.
A second teenager, Kellie Day Martin, 19, kicked the helpless Hernandez on the side of the head, causing a second skull fracture, according to prosecutors. Martin's murder trial is scheduled to begin Nov. 15. A third defendant, Steven Darby, 17, is scheduled to go on trial Nov. 29.
Queen, who has been jailed since a few days after Hernandez died, spoke publicly about the attack for the first time when Shepherd asked whether he had anything to say.
Rocking slowly from side to side, the compact, powerfully built former high school football player said, "I would like to say . . . my heart goes out to the Hernandez family."
Queen said he has done good things in his life and lamented that his father, who has been in and out of prison, was not always there for him. "Sometimes your mother can't play the father role," Queen said. "I'm sorry for what happened."
Maria Hernandez, the sister of Gilberto, asked Shepherd to give Queen the maximum sentence possible--10 years for the involuntary manslaughter conviction and 10 years for second-degree assault.
"How can someone brutally attack my brother, leave him to die, laugh, and then go out to buy drugs?" Maria Hernandez said. (According to trial testimony, Queen laughed about the attack, then went into the District to buy marijuana.) She said a long sentence "will not bring back my brother Gilberto, but it will bring justice for my family."
Assistant State's Attorney Fran Longwell also asked Shepherd to impose the maximum sentence, saying there was no rationale for the "totally senseless" attack on Hernandez, who regularly worked 12-hour days and sent much of his pay to El Salvador to his wife and four daughters.
In asking Shepherd to impose a sentence within sentencing guidelines, defense attorney Jacoby said, "Much of this case was inflamed by early reporting [on the murder] by The Washington Post." Relying on information from law enforcement sources, The Post and other news agencies initially reported that Hernandez was stomped to death, until State's Attorney Jack B. Johnson released autopsy data showing otherwise.
Johnson has been criticized by some Latino advocates and others for his handling of the case. Laurel police initially charged seven teenagers, saying the attack began as a robbery. Johnson said there was no clear motive for the attack and dropped charges against four initial suspects in exchange for their testimony.
In opening statements in the Queen trial, a prosecutor repeated that there was no clear motive for the assault. But two witnesses, Juan Hernandez and Mark Ramsay, a young man who was with the attackers but did not participate in the assault, testified that the assault began as a robbery.
The distinction is important; if prosecutors could convince a jury that the slaying occurred during a robbery attempt, Queen could have been convicted of first-degree felony murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Shepherd threw out the premeditated first-degree murder charge against Queen but, citing the Ramsay testimony, let the felony murder charge stand. Despite a closing argument appeal by Longwell for a felony murder conviction, the jury convicted Queen of the lesser charges.