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Trial begins in Florida Turnpike family killings

Coroners from St. Lucie County remove one of four bodies found along the Florida Turnpike on Oct. 13, 2006, in Port St. Lucie. A couple and their two young children were found shot to death.

Associated Press (2006)

Coroners from St. Lucie County remove one of four bodies found along the Florida Turnpike on Oct. 13, 2006, in Port St. Lucie. A couple and their two young children were found shot to death.

WEST PALM BEACH — The family of four was shot down, execution style, along a dark, empty stretch of Florida's Turnpike, the mother clutching her two young sons.

It appeared Jose Luis Escobedo, 28, his wife, Yessica Guerrero Escobedo, 25, and their sons, Luis Julian, 4, and Luis Damian, 3, were forced to kneel before being shot multiple times, authorities said. Their Jeep Cherokee was found abandoned three days later 50 miles away.

Authorities say Daniel Troya and Ricardo Sanchez Jr., both 25, were settling a dispute with Escobedo when they killed the family. They are charged with armed carjacking resulting in deaths; conspiracy; weapons counts; and drug offenses.

The suspects now face the death penalty in a federal trial more than two years after the Oct. 13, 2006, slayings, which authorities say stemmed from a civil war among members of one of the largest cocaine distribution rings in the eastern United States. Jury selection is expected to conclude today, with opening statements following this afternoon or Tuesday.

Two others — Danny Varela, 28, and Liana Lopez, 20 — also are on trial in the same case for drug conspiracy and weapons charges. If convicted, they face up to life in prison.

All the suspects have pleaded not guilty. Pretrial hearings have been peppered with talk of witness threats, Mexican drug cartels and even a request from prosecutors to keep the identities of jurors secret, something the judge denied.

The Escobedos had moved from the Brownsville, Texas, area to Palm Beach County just four months before their deaths to expand the drug operation, investigators said.

Escobedo's brother, Jose Manuel Escobedo, was sentenced to federal prison for cocaine conspiracy in 2003 but escaped and remains a fugitive. Authorities have not said what connection his case has to the killings, if any.

Prosecutors believe that on the night of the murders, Escobedo took his wife and children along to either deliver or pick up drugs, and was followed by Troya and Sanchez, who killed the family and took their car.

Defense attorneys and prosecutors are bound by an order not to discuss the case outside court, but it is far from a slam dunk, with no witnesses to the crime and no murder weapon.

Prosecutors are relying on highway video surveillance, cell phone records, fingerprints they say are Sanchez's on a turnpike ticket for Escobedo's Jeep, and up to 350 potential witnesses.

A search of the Escobedos' home turned up ledgers that included detailed accounts of drug payments and debts owed, among other things, according to court records. In the suspects' home, authorities say they found cocaine, ecstasy, drug-packaging materials, and more than a dozen guns.

Attorneys for Sanchez and Troya plan to argue that their clients were nowhere near the crime scene when the shootings occurred.

If they are convicted, the federal government doesn't have a great track record securing death recommendations from juries, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington, D.C., Death Penalty Information Center.

Dieter said only about a third of federal capital cases that go to trial end with a death recommendation, compared with about 50 percent for state capital cases. Federal law requires a unanimous verdict from the 12 jurors for a death sentence.

There have been just 37 federal executions since 1927, Dieter said. Currently, 55 inmates await federal executions nationwide. There are no Florida convicts on federal death row.

Only one Florida criminal has been executed by the federal government in 60 years.

Former U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey, now in private practice, said the murders of the two young children could provide enough disdain among jurors, if they find the defendants guilty, to recommend death.

"The murder of children almost always elevates the chances for securing the death penalty," Coffey said.

The trial before U.S. District Judge Daniel Hurley is expected to last up to three months.

Trial begins in Florida Turnpike family killings 01/25/09 [Last modified: Sunday, January 25, 2009 11:51pm]
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