Controversy Clouds Trial of Suspect in U.S. Soldier's Murder

Nov. 22, 2006 — -- Luz Morales wants nothing more than justice for her husband's murder, something that has evaded her family for more than seven years.

"I know my husband is not coming back, but I at least want them to pay for their crime," she said.

In 1999, U.S. Army Sgt. Francisco Javier Morales was serving on a humanitarian mission in Honduras after Hurricane Mitch had blown through the Central American country. He was found dead from multiple gunshot wounds in what investigators say was a robbery gone wrong.

Six suspects were quickly detained in connection with the killing, but none was charged with the crime. One of the suspects, Joel Nahum Espinoza, was soon released after it was determined that police had insufficient evidence to hold him.

Despite later rewards for his capture, he disappeared for years.

Earlier this summer, Espinoza was arrested in the murder and led away in handcuffs from the presidential palace in Honduras where he worked in the Honor Guard. It appeared to mark the end of the Morales family's long, desperate search for answers.

Officials involved in the case, however, say someone appears to be spending a lot of energy and money to keep Espinoza out of jail.

Not long after Espinoza's arrest on July 11 and transfer to Trujillo, the sleepy town on Honduras' northern coast where the crime took place, prosecutors and U.S. officials allege the defense team launched an intense intimidation campaign to free him from the charges.

"Immediately the defense team began to press witnesses to recant their testimony," Ian Brownlee, the consul general at the U.S. embassy in Honduras, told ABC News.

The defense, meanwhile, maintained that Espinoza's arrest was simply a case of mistaken identity.

The U.S. Embassy in Honduras has played a vocal role pushing back against what it sees as irregularities in the trial.

"The U.S. wants to see a fair trial that is free of outside influences," Brownlee said. He appeared on Honduran television last month to expose the irregularities publicly.

Espinoza's arrest is credited to a cold-case team of U.S. and Honduran officials investigating several unsolved murders of Americans in Honduras. When a member of the team picked up Morales' file, he recognized immediately Espinoza's name and knew where to find him. The suspect was soon in custody.

A Wife's Nightmare Begins

Luz Morales couldn't sleep the night her husband was murdered. Although she wouldn't hear the news until the following day, "something felt wrong," she recalled.

"At midnight I got up and my heart was beating. Morales was on my mind and something was wrong," she said.

Morales had been serving as a medic in Honduras with the Louisiana National Guard since the previous February. Luz Morales tried to call him that night but couldn't get through.

The following afternoon representatives from the nearby Army base came by her house. None of them said a word, she remembered. Their faces were red and they were shaking. Finally, one of them delivered the bad news.

Her husband's body had been found along a remote airfield near where he was staying.

An autopsy report obtained by ABC News said the 36-year-old Morales was killed by "multiple firearm injuries" around 1 a.m.

According to investigators, Morales was killed as he walked two female companions home across the dark tarmac on July 17, 1999. The two women were raped in the attack.

Witnesses Intimidated, Judge Threatened

After Espinoza was transferred to Trujillo to stand trial this summer, Honduran prosecutors said the defense team launched a strong-arm campaign to free him.

Two Honduran Honor Guardsmen were soon sent to Trujillo on official duty to support Espinoza. Prosecutors alleged that they attempted to intimidate potential witnesses.

"The witnesses have mentioned, have told us, of people appearing at their houses late at night," Brownlee said.

"In Trujillo, it's a place that is largely lawless, it's in a country with a very high murder rate, and there's really nothing to stop anyone from committing a murder, from shooting a witness," he added.

Two key witnesses -- the women who were raped when Morales was killed -- were set to testify in court that Espinoza was the perpetrator. They had identified him as the killer from photographs and picked him out of a lineup.

One of the women recanted her story after, according to officials, she was seen with the defendant's lawyer and two presidential Honor Guardsmen in a bar. The next day she came to the court to reverse her testimony in the defense's favor.

Two other main witnesses said they were also threatened but have not changed their stories.

A judge who was appointed to work on the case received a phone call saying that his job was in danger if he were to convict Espinoza, according to the prosecution.

Last month the case was transferred to Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, where prosecutors hoped the defense would be less able to influence the decision. The controversy, however, followed them there.

According to prosecutors and U.S. officials, around 200 locals were bused into the capital on three separate occasions to protest the trial in the streets. The officials said these were people with no connection to the case and were rewarded with meals and lodging.

Family, Prosecutors Hope for Best as Judge's Decision Looms

Despite the complications in the trial, prosecutors remain confident the judge will convict Espinoza of murder.

"It's a strong case, despite the irregularities -- they'll find him guilty," Carla Celena Henriquez, one of the Honduran prosecutors, told ABC News. "If not in the first court, then in the appeal."

U.S. embassy officials said they believe a decision could be handed down by the end of the year, despite a last ditch effort by the defense to ask for additional evidence to prove Espinoza's identity. The embassy calls that evidence "superfluous."

The Morales family, too, is confident that justice will be served.

"I know there is someone out there who is guilty for this crime and he has to pay for it," Luz Morales said.

"He was an excellent person," she said of her husband, sniffing back tears.

For the victim's sister, Diana Morales, however, no amount of punishment will really matter.

"They're never going to bring my brother back."