After six days of testimony, a 12-member Circuit Court jury deliberated for less than four hours before returning a guilty verdict this morning in the first-degree murder trial of Michel Moreno.
Moreno, 59, struck and killed his sister, Nancy, as she walked on the shoulder of Rt. 28 one year ago.
The jury will return to court Thursday morning for the sentencing hearing. Moreno faces a sentence at least 20 years and up to life in prison on the murder charge. He also was convicted of leaving the scene of an accident causing a death.
According to testimony in the case, on July 21, 2018, Moreno began to drive his sister to Dulles Airport for a business trip to Cleveland for her job at the Federal Trade Commission. Just one exit north of the airport exit, near the Innovation Avenue interchange, Moreno pulled over and Nancy got out. Around 7:30 a.m., Moreno ran his sister down with the Toyota RAV4, sending her to the hospital where she died five hours later. Moreno continued driving, eventually ending up at the Maryland Live! Casino about an hour north near Baltimore, where Anne Arundel County police apprehended him and found his car, with a hood dented directly in the middle.
During two days of testimony in his defense, Moreno said he did not recall the details of the crash, claiming he felt like he was drugged or had been drugged and that, in the hours after the incident, he did not know whether the vision of his sister hitting the windshield was real.
The jury was charged with evaluating the testimony of dozens of witness testimonies and more than 100 exhibits to determine beyond a reasonable doubt whether Moreno’s actions were done willfully and with malice; and whether they were premeditated.
To issue a first-degree murder conviction, the jury unanimously concluded that that Moreno planned to kill his sister. Without a finding of premeditation, Moreno likely would have been convicted of second-degree murder, which carries a sentence of 5 to 40 years.
Leading up to Tuesday’s jury deliberations, the trial saw more than five days of witness testimony with questions from Moreno’s attorney Robert Vernail and Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Russet Perry and Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Jason Faw.
Questioning of Moreno went back to fall 2017, when his mother was diagnosed with cancer. While his sister was intent on treating their mother using conventional medical treatment at the StoneSprings Hospital Center in southern Loudoun, Moreno was focused on treating his mother holistically—often giving her grape seed extract and other herbal remedies he had learned about over the course of decades through reading up on the subject in magazines and online.
Moreno testified that his mother died in March 2018 after leaving the hospital and being put into perineal care—care he thought would have had nurses simply making his mother’s bed and changing her clothes. Moreno said that when the nurses took his mother back home to Sterling, they gave her a large dose of Ativan that paralyzed and, he believed, killed her.
When asked who he felt was responsible for his mother’s death, Moreno said the “doctors and nurses who gave her so much Ativan were semi-responsible” and that “Nancy was partially responsible, since she believed in the doctors and the nurses.”
Moreno admitted he had texted Nancy accusing her of having “killed mom for money,” but that he sent the text with “a lot of feelings of pain” and in a state of “sadness,” “grief” and “disbelief.” Other witnesses also testified that Moreno had told them he would kill Nancy if their mother died.
Moreno said that after his mother’s death, “my sister was even closer than what my mom would have been,” since it was only Nancy left in his life at that point. He said that Nancy helped him land a job at Domino’s, went to food banks with him, helped him obtain an EBT food card and was also helping him apply for social security disability.
“I did everything with Nancy,” he said. “I’ve never been aggressive with Nancy.”
A few times in his two days of testimony, Moreno began to cry when questioned about Nancy’s death. “I miss my sister,” he said through tears.
Moreno said he had previously been described as a “mild-mannered person” and that he was “the kind of person you’d find at a church or something.”
Prosecutors said the evidence showed that Moreno was obsessed with his mother’s death and his belief that Nancy was among those responsible. He was texting and sending Facebook messages about it for months—including just days before Nancy was killed.
When Perry questioned why Moreno posted on Facebook that “my mom got murdered,” Moreno admitted that he accused Nancy of killing their mother, but not murdering her.
At the time Moreno was driving Nancy to Dulles Airport, he said he “felt calm that I never felt before,” claiming to have fallen asleep in his car beforehand and been drugged, also noting that he had been at work delivering pizzas until 3 a.m. He said that on his way to the airport, he saw a field and swirls outside the car windows and that it was like he was “in a nightmare.” “It was the most unusual time of my life,” he said.
Perry said that Moreno’s testimony was “an incredible story to believe,” emphasizing that Moreno told none of it to the authorities when he was arrested a year ago.
Moreno said that at one point during the car ride to the airport, Nancy asked him why he wasn’t responding to her while she was talking and that he responded by saying, “but I’m just waking up.”
“I didn’t even know what was happening,” Moreno said. “Things were happening that I did not understand.”
Moreno pulled over and Nancy got out and walked about 100 yards south along the shoulder of Rt. 28. Moreno said the only event he could recall after that was Nancy flying onto the hood of the car. He said that he didn’t choose to drive at Nancy and that he had no control.
“I would never do what happened—I couldn’t possibly even run over a dog,” he said. “I didn’t have control of things at that time.”
After driving away from the scene with Nancy’s suitcase dragging under the car, Moreno drove to two casinos in Maryland and drove to Reston Hospital Center looking for his sister and then drove to the Maryland Live! Casino, where he was arrested. He said the casino was a place that typically helped him to forget about stress. “When I’m throwing dice … then my mind has the ability to wonder off of problems,” he said.
Following Moreno’s testimony, Perry and Faw on Tuesday called two inmates at the Loudoun County Adult Detention Center to the stand.
Denis Sanchez testified that Moreno had run multiple stories by him about the July 21, 2018 incident. Those included one in which Moreno was drugged, one that involved Moreno buying Xanax before the trip to the airport and another that involved a mysterious, gloved person getting into the car when he pulled over on Rt. 28 who then took the wheel and killed Nancy. Michael Whalen testified that Moreno had offered him $5,000 to write a letter to prosecutors stating that Whalen had sold Moreno Xanax the day of the incident.
Vernail challenged the credibility of the testimony, calling those types of witnesses a “good, old-fashioned jailhouse rat.” He pointed out that the county gave Sanchez $40 to use at the jail commissary for clothing and toiletries and claimed that Sanchez testified in Moreno’s case to gain the state’s appreciation, since he’ll testify against other people involved in his own, unrelated murder trial this fall.
In her closing arguments, Perry told the jury that “every single moment the defendant is driving that car toward his sister is premeditated.”
“You don’t hit someone with a car at that speed without intending to kill them,” she said. Perry also argued that Moreno’s texts could prove premeditation.
“He did what he had promised people he was going to do. He wasn’t getting over [his mother’s death]—he wasn’t living past it,” she said. “What he did that day was first-degree murder.”