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New Jairo Mora murder trial begins in Limón with new prosecutors, same defendants

January 26, 2016

LIMÓN, Limón — As an unrelenting rain pushed water under the doors of the Limón courthouse Monday morning, three men sauntered through the security line and into a courtroom, where they took their seats in the front row. Last January, these three men — Felipe Arauz, Darwin Salmón and William Delgado — had been led into the same courtroom in handcuffs before walking away free men. Now, charged with the same crimes, they could soon find themselves back in custody.

Arauz, Darwin Salmón and Delgado are three of the seven alleged poachers accused of murdering sea turtle conservationist Jairo Mora and sexually assaulting four foreign volunteers in 2013. All seven men were acquitted of these crimes on Jan. 23, 2015 after judges excluded most of the prosecution’s evidence due to mismanagement and errors in the investigation.

The prosecution won the right to a new trial in an appellate court, nulling the original verdict, and giving the state another chance to convict the same defendants.

Lindsay Fendt/The Tico Times
Lindsay Fendt/The Tico Times

The four other accused — Héctor Cash, José Bryan Quesada, Ernesto Centeno and Donald Salmón — have been serving out sentences for separate rape and robbery charges. The defendants were originally tried for the charges together with the Mora murder charges. They will be retried on those charges also, but will remain in prison for the duration of the trial.

The killing of 26-year-old Mora, who was working to protect sea turtle eggs from poachers at the time of his death, drew international attention. Last year’s acquittals were widely condemned by environmental groups, government agencies and even the United Nations.

Following the errors in the last trial, the state replaced the original prosecution team, but little else has changed. According to Mora’s family lawyer, Rodrigo Araya, the trial will hinge on whether or not the new panel of judges will hear the evidence excluded in the last trial.

Opening statements

The trial began Monday morning with opening statements from the prosecution and each of the five defense attorneys. Jabbing the air with his glasses in hand, lead prosecutor Miguel Ramírez laid out the prosecution’s version of events with frequent asides about the victims’ work for the environment.

“They went to the beach to see nesting leatherback sea turtles. Turtles that won’t be around in a few years thanks to people like these,” Ramírez said, gesturing to the defendants. “Perhaps we will still be able to look at them in photos.”

During his arguments, Ramírez alluded to a telecommunications investigation that he said would prove the defendants were at the scene of the crime at the time of the murder. Judges excluded this same investigation in the original trial because they said detectives failed to prove that the defendants were in possession of the phones at the time. The defense was quick to point out these same problems.

Lindsay Fendt/The Tico Times
Lead Prosecutor Miguel Ramírez makes his opening statements. Lindsay Fendt/The Tico Times

“The cell tower investigation could lead to a number of different conclusions that have nothing to do with the defendants,” said John Quesada, the attorney for Cash and Donald Salmón. “For a conviction, the prosecution needs evidence that provides certainty. They do not have that evidence.”

While the defense and prosecution butted heads over evidence, both sides begged judges for a swift conclusion to the trial, noting that proceedings have dragged on for nearly three years. Though the trial deadline is officially set for March 25, attorneys on both sides of the aisle declared their intentions to finish the trial within a month.

The court’s urgency was welcomed by Mora’s parents, Rafael Mora and Fernanda Sandoval. Because of the civil proceedings being tried in conjunction with the criminal case, the two have to leave their farm near the Panamanian border to attend each trial audience. Despite the inconvenience, Mora and Sandoval hope that with this new trial, they may finally get some closure.

“This time around, I feel more optimistic,” Sandoval told The Tico Times. “I think this time there will be justice because it is just too important for there not to be.”

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