Three days shy of the one-year anniversary of the day Michel Moreno killed his sister by running her over with his car on the side of Rt. 28, a jury on Thursday handed him a sentence that will keep him behind bars for the next 38 years.
A unanimous, 12-member Circuit Court jury deliberated for less than three hours Thursday afternoon before handing down the sentence. A day earlier, the jury found Moreno, 59, guilty of first-degree murder, which carries a sentence of 20 years to life in prison, as well as leaving the scene of an accident causing a death. The jury recommended a sentence of 33 years on the murder conviction and five years for leaving the scene.
That sentencing followed witness impact statements from six people, including Moreno’s older brother and younger sister, a neuropsychologist, a Loudoun County Sheriff’s deputy and two of his sister’s close friends.
According to testimony in the trial, on July 21, 2018, Moreno began to drive his sister, Nancy, 54, 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 and began walking away from the car. Around 7:30 a.m., Moreno drove 100 yards forward, topping Nancy’s Toyota RAV4 out at 20-25 mph, and ran his sister down from behind, sending her to the hospital where she died five hours later.
Moreno continued driving, stopping at home to take some of Nancy’s jewelry and then ending up at the Maryland Live! Casino about an hour north near Baltimore. There, Anne Arundel County police apprehended him and found his car, with a human-sized dent in the middle of the hood.
After six days of testimony, the jury deliberated for less than four hours before returning the guilty verdict on Wednesday morning.
“There’s something about murder that sets it apart—there’s no recovery,” Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Jason Faw told the jury. “This is the type of case that changes lives forever.”
The overwhelming evidence for the conviction was Moreno’s many text and Facebook messages and posts in which he blamed Nancy for helping to cause their mother’s death in March 2018. He believed the doctors and nurses had “paralyzed” their mother with Ativan in their attempt to treat her cancer. Moreno favored holistic treatment by means of natural remedies like grape seed extract.
During Thursday’s witness impact statements, Moreno’s older brother, Felix Moreno, said that he had been distant from Michel for the past three decades because he found his brother to be “very easy to manipulate” and his mannerisms “odd” and because he couldn’t understand or associate with Michel like he could with a “normal person.”
“It got increasingly more uncomfortable over time,” he said. “I spent as little time as I could communicating with him.”
Felix also noted that his brother had been involved in a car accident about 25 years ago in which he was airlifted to a hospital to treat his head injuries—an accident that Scott Bender, an associate professor of clinical psychiatric medicine at the University of Virginia who examined Moreno while in jail last month, said most likely caused Moreno’s neurocognitive disorders.
Bender said that when he evaluated Moreno on June 24 through a series of eight tests, Moreno showed symptoms of neurocognitive and psychiatric disorders. He said Moreno exhibited problems with social perception that caused him to have “real trouble discerning what was meant by someone’s tone” and to misread social interactions with “peculiar interpretations of what’s going on.”
Bender also found evidence of an autism spectrum disorder and schizoid personality disorder, which he said could have led to Moreno’s “imaginable thinking” and even paranoia. He noted that chronic stress—perhaps onset by the death of Moreno’s mother—would have made Moreno’s conditions worse to the point where he might have had a “disproportionate tendency” to be unaware of what he was doing at times.
Bender attributed Moreno’s possible dissociation disorder with the story he recounted while on the witness stand late last week, in which Moreno claimed to have been drugged and felt like he was “in a nightmare” and had seen a field and swirls outside the car windows when he was driving his sister to the airport last July.
Other witnesses on Thursday spoke about Nancy and the time they spent with her. One of those was Kathleen Burke, who said she knew Nancy for a decade before her death. Burke said that Nancy was a volunteer at her church who loved God, her mother, her friends and her dog, which Burke has since taken in.
Burke said she spent all of the day on July 20, 2018 with Nancy and that she still questioned her decision to not volunteer to drive Nancy to the airport the next morning. “That guilt still haunts me,” she said.
Paul Ciehoski, a friend of Nancy’s since 2011, said that she was a “very kind person” and told the jury that all he had left of Nancy were photos, memories and “a big question why.”
When Michel and Nancy’s sister, Marlene Hilton, took to the stand, she emphasized that Michel was in need of help following their mother’s death and that it was Marlene, not Nancy, who was the driving force behind the effort to get him help.
During the trial, it was frequently mentioned that Nancy was doing all she could to help Michel get his life back on track following their mother’s death. Moreno testified that Nancy had helped him land a job at Domino’s, took him to food banks, helped him obtain an EBT food card and helped him apply for social security disability.
Hilton, who also was rather distant from Michel and Nancy prior to their mother’s death, said that she was the only person Moreno talked to after their mom died.
“I came back in the family and realized that I needed to fulfill a need they had,” she said. “[Michel] couldn’t think straight, he couldn’t make decisions. … He was depressed, he was in trauma, he was just lost.”
Hilton acknowledged texting to Nancy that Michel was “a professional con man,” although she said she sent that text merely to get a reaction from Nancy.
In his closing argument on Thursday, Moreno’s attorney Robert Vernail emphasized to the jury that Moreno was mentally ill. While Faw argued that there were two Michel Morenos—one the jury saw in court who broke down multiple times when talking about his mother and sister and another whom many witnesses testified against—Vernail said that “there’s not two Michel Morenos, there’s one Michel Moreno and he’s mentally ill.”
“You know he’s not a normal person,” he said. “That has to be taken into your consideration in your sentencing, it just has to.”
Vernail said that Nancy was forgiving and that she rooted for the underdog, noting that Moreno “is probably a textbook definition of an underdog.”
He urged the jury to consider that whichever sentence it handed Moreno, it was going to be a life sentence because of Moreno’s age—even if the jury had given Moreno 20 years, he would have been released at age 79. “There’s not much quality of life beyond that,” Vernail said.
But jury members followed the commonwealth’s lead and sentenced Moreno to the unofficial life sentence, after Faw told them they “speak for everyone in this county.”
In his closing argument, Faw called Moreno a “simple person” who’s “not like everyone else should be on the street.” He emphasized that Moreno didn’t have to speak poorly of Nancy by testifying that she had confessed to Moreno when she got out of the car on Rt. 28 that “I killed mom, I killed mom, I killed mom.” Faw noted that when Moreno hit Nancy, the impact literally broke her heart.
“She got run over for mom and she didn’t even see it coming,” he said. “I think it shows the act of a coward.”
Moreno’s formal sentencing will take place Oct. 21.