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Jury gets case in cop-killing retrial

Officer Thomas Trench died 23 years ago

Jury deliberations began yesterday in the murder retrial of Wilfredo Santiago, who is accused of killing Police Officer Thomas Trench 23 years ago.

The panel of six men and six women got the case near the end of the day and deliberated for an hour before being dismissed. It will continue deliberations today.

Assistant District Attorney Carlos Vega told the jury in closing arguments yesterday that the killing of Trench was "up close and personal."

Trench, 43, was sitting in his patrol car on 17th Street near Spring Garden when Santiago fired two shots at him through his open driver's side window in the early morning hours of May 28, 1985, Vega said.

When Vega displayed a close-up photo of Trench - his face and neck splattered with blood - the officer's two daughters and other family members in the gallery softly wept.

Vega told the Common Pleas jury that Santiago had the motive and the weapon to carry out the murder. He also said Santiago boasted of the murder in prison.

Defense attorney David Rudovsky said in his closing argument that authorities focused on Santiago as a suspect "on the thinnest of evidence." From there, he alleged, they "fit the evidence to fit the initial theory."

He contended that the prosecution's case was built on four pillars, and argued that those pillars of evidence were not strong and, thus, "that house will not stand."

Authorities contend that Santiago shot Trench, who was sitting in patrol car No. 912, but had intended to kill another officer, Ismael Cruz, who had driven the same car the day before.

On May 27, Cruz responded to a street fight in Santiago's Spring Garden neighborhood and had chased Santiago after people in the crowd reported that he had a gun.

Santiago got away during the chase. But in the foyer of Santiago's house, Cruz got into a fight with Santiago's male cousin and was "jumped" by Santiago's aunt, Cruz testified during the trial.

Santiago "perceived" that Cruz had hit his aunt, Vega said, and, because of that, Santiago harbored anger toward Cruz and vowed revenge.

Vega told jurors that Cruz has been deeply affected by Trench's murder all these years.

He was "testifying to you with tears in his eyes," Vega said. "He has so much regret."

Vega said that in the early morning of May 28, witnesses in the neighborhood saw Santiago outside riding on a bike. They included a couple who were sitting on the steps of a church.

The male of that couple had testified at Santiago's first trial in 1986 that he saw Santiago drop a gun. On the stand two weeks ago, he recanted that testimony.

Another witness testified that he was inside his house on Mount Vernon Street near 16th when he heard one or two gunshots, then peered out his window and saw Santiago on a bike riding through the intersection of 17th and Mount Vernon.

Rudovsky argued that it would be an "impossible fantasy" for this witness to have seen Santiago, pointing out the distance from the man's house to the intersection as "more than a football field."

Vega also reminded jurors that Santiago boasted to other inmates that he had killed a cop. He also said that in December 1986 Santiago had threatened a correctional-officer trainee. That officer didn't hear the threat, but John Hamilton, who was then a correctional-officer trainee and is now a sheriff's deputy, testified during the trial that he heard Santiago say to the other officer: "I'll kill you like I killed the f---ing cop."

Rudovsky contended that every important prosecution witness - such as the so-called jailhouse informants - had given contradictory statements throughout the years and were "polluted" sources.

He said there were no eyewitnesses and no forensic evidence tying Santiago to the shooting.

Santiago, now 44, is charged with murder and possession of an instrument of crime. *