Murder Trial That Captivated CNMI Ends With Guilty Verdict

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Rapist, killer of young mother to be sentenced on May 28

By Ferdie de la Torre

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, April 25, 2014) – A Superior Court jury rendered yesterday a unanimous verdict, finding Joseph A. Crisostomo guilty of kidnapping, raping, killing, and robbing bartender Emerita R. Romero, a mother of two.

After deliberating for about six hours, the six jurors reached a guilty verdict against the 40-year-old Crisostomo on charges of first-degree murder, kidnapping, sexual assault in the first-degree, and robbery.

As a court staff read the guilty verdict before a jam-packed courtroom at 4:23pm, Crisostomo’s mouth opened slightly and his eyes widened.

Romero’s brother, Eduardo, and sister, Estrellita Relata, who were both sitting on the first bench row behind the prosecution’s table, burst into tears after hearing the verdict. Romero’s friends and other people were seen either wiping their tears or sobbing.

Crisostomo’s sister, Annie, and another sister sat silently behind the defense’s table.

Associate Judge Joseph N. Camacho, who presided over the trial and decided the misdemeanor charges, found Crisostomo guilty of assault and battery and disturbing the peace.

Sentencing will be on May 28, 2014, at 9am.

First-degree murder carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment; sexual assault in the first degree, 30 years; kidnapping with injuries, 30 years; robbery with injuries, 20 years; assault and battery, one year; and disturbing the peace, six months.

Camacho said the government proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt on the charges of assault and battery and disturbing the peace. He cited the autopsy conducted on Romero body, her injuries and cause of death, and the 911 call wherein the victim was heard saying her neck hurt.

The judge also mentioned, among other pieces of evidence, that Crisostomo drove a rental car and transported Romero, his DNA was present in Romero’s vaginal swabs, and the footprints found at La Fiesta Mall that matched Crisostomo’s barefoot prints.

"From her [Romero] own words in the 911 recording, she was begging for her life. The court finds that you are that person," Camacho told the defendant.

Interim chief prosecutor Brian Flaherty recommended a presentence investigation report but Camacho quickly denied it.

Camacho said he is very familiar with Crisostomo, having sentenced him twice in previous criminal convictions. The judge noted that at present, Crisostomo is serving a 10-and-half-year prison term that he earlier imposed on the defendant.

He said the prosecution and defense counsel are welcome to submit their respective sentencing recommendations.

Camacho said people who support a lenient prison term must submit their position papers to defense counsel Janet H. King, while those who don’t support a lenient sentence must submit their position papers to the Office of the Attorney General.

After Camacho adjourned the trial, Romero’s brother, Eduardo, who was still crying, hugged Federal Bureau of Investigation special agent Haejun Park.

Romero’s younger sister, Estrellita, was sobbing uncontrollably as Guma Esperansa director Laurie Ogumoro and a nun comforted her. Deputy court marshal Jess Santos handed a glass of water to Estrellita.

Assistant attorney general Margo Brown-Badawy was also in tears, as well as Scott Dottino, one of the owners of Godfather’s Bar where Romero worked.

The well-combed Crisostomo, wearing a pair of khaki pants, striped white long-sleeved shirt, and black leather shoes, was escorted out of the courtroom by at least seven Department of Corrections officers and four court marshals on the way back to DOC.

In an interview with reporters, court-appointed defense counsel King said there are some rulings that they will review for possible appeal.

"We will make sure that we explore all avenues," said King.

She said that, as she stated in her closing arguments, the goal of the defense attorney and the defense team in this case is to ensure that Crisostomo gets a fair trial.

"I thank the judge and the court’s personnel for everything that they’ve done for this trial for the last two and a half weeks as well as the people at DOC," she added.

Flaherty said he and the Office of the Attorney General are very satisfied that justice has been done. He thanked the Department of Public Safety, the Department of Corrections, and the FBI for assisting in the investigation.

Brown-Badawy said she was very affected by this case.

"I think it’s a matter of being in a wrong place at a wrong time. It could happen to anyone of us. Unfortunately, that happened in this case," Brown-Badawy said.

"You listened to that [911] recording and how can you not, as a human being, be affected by what you hear?" Flaherty interrupted.

The trial began on April 7, 2014. Flaherty and Brown-Badawy called a total of 31 witnesses. King called only one witness, police detective Simon Manacop, who served as the lead case agent in the Romero murder investigation.

King filed a total of 44 pre-trial individual motions. She was assisted in the case by two co-counsels from Guam: Jeffrey Moots and F. Randall Cunliffe. The two Guam lawyers, however, did not attend the trial.

The jurors, composed of four women and two men, began deliberations late Wednesday afternoon and continued yesterday morning.

At 3:25pm, the jurors passed a note to Camacho that they have reached a unanimous verdict. Commonwealth Ports Authority executive director MaryAnn Lizama served as the jury’s foreperson.

Romero was last seen boarding a car near her house in Garapan in the early morning of Feb. 5, 2012. Two days later, Federal Bureau of Investigation agents found her body in a small room at an abandoned La Fiesta Mall in San Roque/As Matuis. Autopsy showed she was beaten up and strangled to death with a pair of leggings.

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