A federal jury in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Alexandria, Va., convicted two members of the violent Mara Salvatrucha street gang yesterday of killing a 17-year-old government witness, reports the Washington Post. The jury acquitted two other gang members, including a convicted killer accused of plotting the murder from his jail cell. Jurors will decide, in a penalty phase starting Monday, whether the men should be sentenced to death or life in prison. Brenda Paz, 17, an MS-13 member who had been cooperating with federal officials was fatally stabbed in 2003.
The verdicts marked a step — smaller than prosecutors had hoped — in the federal crackdown on MS-13, the largest and most violent street gang in Northern Virginia. Prosecutors now will try to convince the same jury to sentence the men to death. In Alexandria, a federal jury has never voted for a death sentence, despite a jury pool regarded as conservative and pro-government. Since 2001, federal juries nationwide have declined to sentence defendants to death in 61 of the 77 cases in which prosecutors have sought capital punishment, including 11 consecutive rejections over the past six months, says the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel.