In preparation for an 18-day murder trial scheduled to open in May, county prosecutors and attorneys representing Braulio M. Castillo spent much of last week in court arguing over what evidence the jury will and will not be allowed to see.
The Ashburn business man is charged with first-degree murder in the March 19, 2014, death of his estranged wife, Michelle, whose body was found hanging in a basement bathroom in her Belmont Station home. Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office investigators say Castillo entered her home, killed Michelle during a struggle in her bedroom and then staged a scene to make it appear she committed suicide.
The prosecution’s case is built on circumstantial evidence, making the testimony presented to the jury all the more critical.
During three days of arguing pre-trial motions before Circuit Court Judge Stephen E. Sincavage, elements of the prosecution and defense cases where brought to light.
Both sides presented testimony and arguments for some 12 hours over two days about whether the behavior exhibited by two FBI scent detection dogs that searched Michelle’s home should be shared with the jury or limited in some way. The actions of Morse, who is trained to recognize the scent of decomposing bodies, is an important element of the prosecution’s case. The dog reacted to scents in two areas of the home—in the basement bathroom and at the foot of Michelle’s bed.
The bedroom alert supports the investigators’ theory that she was killed in the bedroom and her body was later moved. Castillo’s attorneys worked to raise doubts about whether the dogs’ actions could be deemed reliable, questioning everything from the skill of the dogs, the work of their handlers and the science behind their findings. Sincavage did not immediately rule on the defense’s motion to exclude the evidence.
Another key element in the case is grainy video footage recorded by a security camera mounted on a house in Michelle’s neighborhood. It shows a man jogging down the street toward Michelle’s house at 8 p.m. and a man jogging in the opposite direction four and a half hours later. Three people—including a couple who were longtime friends of the Castillos and who now care for their four minor children, and the Castillo’s oldest son—have said the man in at least one of the clips is Braulio M. Castillo.
While the face and other details of the runner can’t be detected, the witnesses said they recognize a quirk in his stride that could result from a foot injury the suspect suffered long ago. Prosecutors say the video will help put Castillo at the scene for a time long enough to kill his wife and stage a suicide scene. The defense attorneys argued it was impossible to make any identification from the footage. Sincavage ruled that the jury should decide what weight to give that evidence.
The defense did register some wins along the way. For example, some of the things Castillo said and the way he acted in the presence of investigators in the hours and days after his wife’s death won’t be told to the jury.
As the hearing continued Tuesday, the fourth day, the prosecutors argued the unusual motion of asking the judge not to allow the jury to know that two witness—including the lead investigator in the case—were terminated by Sheriff Mike Chapman at the end of last year. At the beginning of each term, the newly elected sheriff has the authority to decide which deputies will continue to serve as sworn officers. The lead investigator supported Chapman’s opponent in the Republican party’s nomination process and was let go Dec. 31.
Also not re-sworn was one of the sheriff’s top administrators, a friend of the family who Castillio claimed he called to report his wife’s disappearance. Sincavage ruled that the information would not be disclosed, although the position could change as the trial unfolds.
Castillio’s trial is scheduled to start May 17 and continue until June 10. On the first-degree murder charge, he faces a sentence of 20 years to life in prison.