Catch as catch can

A Mexican killer learns you can run but can't hide from U.S. law

Working homicide for the last 20 years, Dallas Detective Jesse Briseno was all too familiar with the pattern -- a dead body, a thorough investigation, and an air-tight case, yet the prime suspect gets away with murder. Too often that murderer was a Mexican national living and killing in Dallas who headed straight for the border and vanished into a sanctuary of unenforced extradition treaties, bungling bureaucrats, and Mexican cops who just didn't give a damn. Too often, the case grew old and cold, buried in some dusty file drawer, long forgotten by everyone but the victim's family.

That's why in 1994, Briseno became a squad of one, originating the foreign prosecutions unit of the Dallas Police Department, which seeks cooperation of the Mexican government to prosecute in their country those of its citizens who murder in this one.

When Assistant District Attorney Stephani Hudgins first learned there was a chance that a murder suspect who had escaped trial in Dallas might be prosecuted in Mexico, she wasn't hopeful. Hudgins was haunted by the death of 21-month-old Briana Cisneros, who was killed by her babysitter Maricela Martinez. Hudgins had done everything in her power to prosecute Martinez and was frustrated in her efforts when, through purposeful indifference and bureaucratic design, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service deported Martinez to Mexico. For more than three years, the photograph of the tiny child with black hair and a butter-melting smile had been pinned to the wall in Hudgins' office.

Detective Jesse Briseno is the head of the foreign prosecutions unit of the Dallas Police Department. He is also its only member.
Mark Graham
Detective Jesse Briseno is the head of the foreign prosecutions unit of the Dallas Police Department. He is also its only member.

"I just wasn't real optimistic she would ever be convicted in Mexico," Hudgins says.

What Hudgins hadn't counted on was the sea change in Mexico's willingness to prosecute its citizens for murders committed in this country and the push by Texas Attorney General John Cornyn to forge relationships with Mexican officials and educate Texas law enforcement to alter its attitude toward pursuing those prosecutions.

Just two weeks ago, Briseno received word from Mexican authorities that Maricela Martinez had been tried for murder in Mexico City and had received a 50-year prison sentence. "I was elated by the verdict and surprised that she got so much time," Briseno says. "That speaks to the cooperation we are now getting from Mexico."

Yet the Martinez prosecution (featured in "Plugging the hole," May 28, 1998) is a textbook case of the governmental glitches and diplomatic debacles confronting law enforcement when it attempts to bring a foreign national to justice. It's also a rare case of well-intentioned bureaucrats who were willing to accept responsibility for their actions and work to prevent a similar tragedy.

On the morning of October 14, 1996, an ambulance brought 2-year-old Briana Cisneros to Parkland hospital's emergency room -- her skull fractured, her hemorrhaging massive, her death inevitable. Maricela Martinez, the girlfriend of Briana's father, had reluctantly agreed to care for the child that day, but no matter what she did, the child wouldn't stop crying. Then somewhere between 9:30 p.m. and 10 p.m., Martinez claimed, the child stood up in her highchair and fell just as Martinez grabbed for her. The baby's head hit the floor hard, and when Martinez saw blood, she called 911.

Dr. Janet Squires, a child-abuse specialist at Children's Medical Center, offered a different explanation. In court papers, she swore that Briana's extensive brain damage could only have been caused by a force "comparable to a child being thrown from a three-story building or being in a major car accident."

Martinez would later admit that she had been tired that morning and didn't really want to take care of the child. "I didn't love her," she told a detective, "but I didn't hate her either." She also changed her story, claiming at different times that the child didn't cry, and she didn't actually witness the fall or see any blood.

On November 4, 1996, Martinez was indicted for injury to a child rather than murder -- a common prosecutorial practice since both offenses carry the same range of punishment and injury to a child is easier to prove. The case was assigned to Hudgins, at that time a trial prosecutor in the district attorney's child-abuse section. "The case really touched my heart because the family was so devastated," she says. "The grandmother and father would come into my office with literally handfuls of photographs of this beautiful little girl."

From the prosecution's standpoint, the case had nothing but jury appeal: an innocent victim, a lying defendant, brutal injuries. "That was the biggest skull fracture that I ever encountered as an assistant DA," Hudgins says. Certainly the facts justified both a conviction and a stiff sentence.

But on March 20, 1997, Martinez's mother posted the $100,000 bond that had been set in her daughter's case. Rather than being set free, Martinez was delivered to the custody of local INS agents who sought to deport her to Mexico, claiming she had entered this country illegally. The immigration service seemed unconcerned that she still faced state criminal charges. "Our obligation to the taxpayer is to just get rid of them," INS spokesman Lynn Ligon told the Dallas Observer.

That is exactly what the INS did. On April 14, 1997, an immigration judge ordered Martinez deported. She was put on a bus headed for Nuevo Laredo, where she was released the next day.

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