WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – A lawyer for one of two men accused of slaying a couple and their two young children along Florida's Turnpike in an alleged drug dispute told a jury Thursday there are loose ends in the government's case and his client should be acquitted.
Michael Cohen, an attorney for Ricardo Sanchez Jr., said in closing arguments that several witnesses testified that Sanchez and victim Jose Luis Escobedo were friends and "Sanchez had no motive to hurt anybody."
Cohen also cited testimony from a government witness who said Escobedo was alleged drug ring head Danny Varela's primary source for obtaining cocaine from Mexico and that would dry up if Escobedo were killed.
The bodies of Escobedo, 28; his wife, Yessica Guerrero Escobedo, 25; and their sons, Luis Julian, 4, and Luis Damian, 3; were found alongside a darkened stretch of the turnpike in October 2006.
Prosecutors say Escobedo was involved in a drug ring with Sanchez and co-defendant Daniel Troya and that the family was killed because the defendants couldn't pay Escobedo money they owed him.
Troya and Sanchez, both 25, are charged in federal court with armed carjacking resulting in deaths, conspiracy, weapons counts and drug offenses. Both have pleaded not guilty. They face the death penalty if convicted. Their attorneys insist the family was killed by Mexican drug lords.
Cohen also pointed to a ledger that shows Escobedo owed $187,000 to someone in Matamoros, Mexico, and that the brutality of the killings indicates "they were a message from south of the border."
Prosecutor John Kastrenakes said in his rebuttal that Varela owed money to Escobedo, so the motive to kill him was to erase the debt and take 15 kilograms of cocaine Escobedo had with him.
Two others — Varela, 28, and Liana Lopez, 20 — also are on trial for drug conspiracy and weapons charges. They also have pleaded not guilty and face life in prison if convicted.
Prosecutor Stephen Carlton had told jurors earlier that the case was about "large-scale drug trafficking, guns and violence" that took the defendants down "an expressway to murder." He called the crime "brutal and savage."
Cohen said there were several other problems with the case prosecutors based largely on circumstantial evidence.
He told jurors they should discount as unreliable expert testimony that scratches on bullets found at the defendants' home matched scratches on bullet casings found at the murder scene.
"People were convicted wrongly before there was DNA evidence," Cohen told the jury. "People rotted in jail; people were executed" based on unreliable evidence.
Kastrenakes responded in his rebuttal.
"In some ways circumstantial evidence is better than direct evidence; it doesn't change. They cannot change the toll tickets, they cannot change the phone records, they cannot change the ballistics evidence," Kastrenakes said. "There are no eyewitnesses to the murders, but there is a mountain of circumstantial evidence."
Lopez, an 18-year-old high school senior at the time of the slayings, was a frequent visitor to Varela's house because she was his girlfriend, but she did not live with him and was not part of his drug operation, attorney Gregg Lerman said of his client in a nearly two-hour summation.
"They (prosecutors) try to drag Ms. Lopez in whenever they think they have the opportunity," Lerman told the 18 jurors, including six alternates.
U.S. District Judge Daniel T.K. Hurley gave the jury a three-day weekend and told them he will instruct them Monday morning, after which deliberations will begin.