The U.S. Justice Department announced plans to seek the death penalty against one of 11 people charged in the MS-13 gang-related stabbing deaths of two teens in Fairfax County during the summer of 2016.
In a court filing on Friday, federal prosecutors said they intend to seek the death sentence against 27-year-old Elmer Zelaya Martinez.
Martinez, according to prosecutors, played a role in the “planning and premeditation” of the murders of both a 17-year-old boy in August and a 14-year-old boy in September 2016. Both victims were lured into Holmes Run Park where they were attacked, murdered and left in shallow graves, according to court records.
Martinez’s defense attorney Robert Jenkins said he is not surprised by the move and sees it as politically motivated.
“We are greatly disappointed because, from our perspective, it appears as though that politics has infiltrated this case,” said Jenkins.
Martinez, who was known in the gang by the nickname “killer,” is a native of El Salvador, the country from which the gang is based. President Donald Trump has called the MS-13 gang a threat to America, regarding its existence in the U.S. as a result of a broken immigration system.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement has issued detainers for all 11 suspects in the case, including Martinez, an ICE spokeswoman told WTOP.
“Our client’s background in certain aspects about this case fits pretty nicely into the current administration’s view on immigration,” said attorney Robert Jenkins, who represented Martinez.
The Justice Department declined to comment for this story.
An indictment in Martinez’s case claims the 17-year-old was killed because he was thought to be a member of a rival gang which was trying to infiltrate Martinez’s MS-13 clique. The 14-year-old boy was killed, according to prosecutors because the gang believed he was cooperating with police.
Prosecutors said Martinez directed many of the other accused members during the murders and showed a “lack of remorse for his violent acts.”
In its motion to seek a death sentence, the Justice Department claims Martinez showed a “pattern of violence, and threats of violence” and poses “future danger” because he could try to hurt or direct others to hurt witnesses, prison guards and others involved in the case against him.
The prosecution said proof of this is Martinez being caught twice in possession of shanks or makeshift knives, while behind bars ahead of his trial.
Jenkins took issue with what he called “uncharged and unadjudicated” offenses prosecutors alleged in the filing. He also called the allegation about his client being caught with a shanks on two occasions “new information to me” and that the filing is the first time the defense has heard about it.
Jenkins wouldn’t discuss the defense team’s strategy in the case but said some of the allegations made about his client’s role in the gang and the murders are “factually not true.”
“We are really hopeful that when all the facts come out, that a jury that can see through the politics that are being leveraged here, that Mr. Martinez will be spared a death sentence,” Jenkins said.
Attorney General William Barr announced last summer after a 16-year hiatus, federal executions would resume. Some inmates challenged the move, and a federal judge temporarily blocked the restart.
The case went to the Supreme Court, which denied a request from the government to overturn the lower court’s decision.