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Accused gang leader’s trial severed from co-defendants

ALEXANDRIA (AP) A federal judge has ordered that an accused gang leader facing a possible death sentence will receive a separate trial from his co-defendants.

Elmer Zelaya Martinez, 29, is accused of leading his accomplices in the MS-13 street gang in the 2016 stabbing deaths of Edvin Escobar Mendez, 17, and Sergio Arita Triminio, 14.

Earlier this week, the Justice Department decided to pursue the death penalty against Zelaya Martinez but not against the other 10 co-defendants. It is the first time since 2012 that prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia have given notice that they intend to pursue the death penalty.

At a hearing Jan. 10, U.S. District Judge Rossie Alston ruled it would be unfairly prejudicial to Zelaya Martinez to put him on trial alongside 10 others who weren’t facing a possible death sentence.

The ruling is a victory for the defendants. The other 10 defendants wanted a separate trial in part because a joint trial would require that any potential juror would be willing to consider a death penalty. Legal experts generally agree that excluding potential jurors who object on principle to the death penalty skews any jury in favor of conviction.

A separate trial also benefits Zelaya Martinez, who otherwise might be stigmatized from the outset of the trial as more culpable than his co-defendants because of his death-eligible status.

Prosecutors had wanted all the defendants to be tried jointly.

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