When Gerardo N. Lara was preparing to defend himself in his second trial on charges that he killed his estranged wife, he considered an option that defendants in murder cases typically do not choose: having a judge -- not a jury -- determine the outcome.
Lara, along with prosecutors, agreed this month to go with the judge. Upon first examination, that might have seemed like a wise move for the defendant. After all, in his first trial in April, a jury convicted Lara of first-degree murder. It was only because a juror lied about purchasing a newspaper during deliberations that the conviction was overturned.
But Lara did not fare much better this week, in his second trial in Prince William County Circuit Court. On Tuesday, Judge Rossie D. Alston Jr. found him guilty of second-degree murder in the death of his wife, Marissa Lara.
Prosecutors said they were gratified to secure a second conviction, even though it was not a first-degree murder verdict that could have put Lara in prison for life. Lara, who faces between five and 40 years in prison, maintains his innocence, defense attorney Jon Shields said.
In a written opinion, Alston said that inmates in Lara's cell block at the Prince William jail were credible witnesses. Inmates testified that Lara confessed to them and divulged details only the killer would know.
Although Jerrold J. Negin, Prince William County assistant commonwealth's attorney, argued vigorously in court for a first-degree murder verdict, Alston said there was not enough evidence to determine whether the killing was premeditated -- a necessary requirement for a first-degree murder conviction.
"What were the circumstances which caused what we now know were the fatal blows to Mrs. Lara? Was there a verbal or physical altercation between the parties?" Alston asked.
Law enforcement authorities believe that Marissa Lara, a waitress, was killed May 13, 2003, when she went to her husband's Cannon Ridge Road home in Manassas to prepare their sons for school that morning. It was part of her daily routine to stop by the home after Lara left for work.
A week later, her body was found with three stab wounds to the head. Her body was inside her car, parked in Dupont Circle in Northwest Washington, authorities said.
During closing arguments this week, Negin argued that Lara was angry that his estranged wife was in another relationship. Negin pointed to a protective order against him that Marissa Lara had sought but dropped the day before she disappeared.
"He said he was going to kill me, and he was going to jail," the wife told the judge, according to court papers.
Shields, the defense attorney, argued that his client and a neighbor saw Marissa Lara get in a black Honda that had D.C. license plates, and that there were four people inside. He suggested that the wife, who worked at a strip club in the District, operated in a suspicious world involving illegal drug use.
Lara is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 16.