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2009 Year in Review: Jury finds Fraga guilty in 5 hours

Josue Fraga

WORTHINGTON -- On the Minnesota Department of Corrections Web site, he has an admittance date of May 18, 2009, and an expiration date of May 13, 2108. The sentence is listed as "life without parole."

Josue Robles Fraga, 36, is at the beginning of a life sentence, convicted of murdering his 2-year-old niece Samantha by a Nobles County jury. Selecting the jury took more than four days, the trial lasted seven days, and deliberation on the jury's part took less than five hours. Shortly after 9 p.m. on May 14, Fraga was sentenced to life in prison after being declared guilty of first-degree murder while committing first-degree criminal sexual conduct, second-degree murder without intent while committing first-degree criminal sexual conduct and second-degree murder while committing first-degree assault.

The death of the little girl in March 2008 shocked the community -- the yellow crime scene tape surrounding the mobile home in the Sungold Heights trailer park was a daily reminder of the violence that had taken place.

The girl had been pronounced dead the morning of March 20, 2008, and Fraga was taken into custody for her murder on March 26 after a warrant was issued for his arrest. By May 2008, Fraga was indicted for first-degree murder by a grand jury.

Fraga and his wife had brought Samantha to the emergency room at Sanford Regional Hospital Worthington with a body temperature of 84 degrees, pupils fixed and dilated, her stomach distended and bruises on her body. The initial exam revealed evidence of significant trauma to her head and her perianal/rectal area. An autopsy later showed the girl had been penetrated in both her vaginal and anal regions and that she died of head injuries, multiple contusions, traumatic injuries of the sex organs and rectum, peritonitis and rupture of the stomach.

In January 2009, defense attorney Cecil Naatz claimed the evidence in the case proved Fraga's innocence and filed a motion asking that charges be dismissed against his client. That motion was denied. In April, Naatz unsuccessfully argued for a change of venue in the case, stating it would be in the interest of justice if the case was moved to a place where it was not as well known.

Finding the jurors for the trial was a long process. Each prospective juror had filled out an extensive questionnaire prior to appearing in the courtroom. The questions ranged from personal experience with law enforcement to their knowledge of the case. One by one, the prospective jurors were brought into the courtroom and questioned by Judge Timothy Connell, then defense attorneys Naatz and Pam King. If the defense attorneys had no objection to a juror, then prosecuting attorneys Assistant Attorney General Bill Klumpp and Nobles County Attorney Gordon Moore asked questions of their own.

Each juror was warned there would be graphic photos, including those from the autopsy of the child. Each person who was released from jury obligation after questioning wore the same look of relief as they exited the courtroom.

Throughout the long process, Fraga sat quietly next to his attorneys. He had lost a considerable amount of weight since his arrest, to the point that one of his own children didn't recognize him when he was called to testify.

During opening statements, Klumpp told the jury Samantha and her 3-year-old brother had been placed in the custody of their aunt and uncle when Fraga's brother got in trouble with the law.

"(They) did not fare well in the custody of Josue and Marisela," he added.

During the next few days, Klumpp told the jury, they would hear about Fraga and his family -- his wife, Maricela, his brothers, his four children and his brother's children. They would hear testimony from many of those family members, along with various medical doctors and law enforcement officers. They would watch the videotaped interviews of Fraga and law enforcement and see him tell officers that he could not explain any of the little girl's injuries.

"What you need to do is follow the trail of the evidence," Klumpp said. "When you do that, you will come to the conclusion that the defendant committed the crimes he is charged with."

Naatz told the jury they would see photos that would show the injuries of a little girl who was killed, but reminded them they were not there to determine if injuries had occurred but if the defendant was the one who caused them.

"Something bad happened to this little girl," Naatz stated. "But we believe Josue Fraga did not cause the injuries and is not guilty of the crimes."

Testimony in the next several days informed the jury of Samantha's injuries, of the autopsy doctor's belief she had been dead four to eight hours before being brought to the hospital, and that Fraga was the only adult in the house at her approximate time of death.

Fraga's wife and several of his children testified, as did a variety of law enforcement and forensic experts. Samantha's father took the stand and told the jury his older brother had sexually molested him several times when they were teenagers.

"Why would you ask your brother to take care of your children, knowing what he had done to you?" Klumpp asked.

"I believed he had outgrown it," Samuel said. "He has four kids and takes care of them good."

After six full days of testimony and almost 40 witnesses, the prosecution rested its case.

The defense's case lasted a short time and consisted of very few witnesses, including Fraga's wife, who had also testified for the prosecution. Fraga did not testify.

During closing arguments, Klumpp wove details into a story for the jury, telling them Samantha was being toilet trained, and when Fraga discovered she had soiled her pants, he punished her by anally raping her with an object that was never found.

"It hurt and she cried, and that's when he started beating her," Klumpp surmised. "You can see the knuckle impressions his fist made on her forehead."

He would have then put her forcefully into the tub, which caused the trauma to the back of her head, Klumpp said. Holding her down in the tub to clean her would have caused her stomach to rupture.

The state was not claiming that Fraga meant for Samantha to die, Klumpp explained.

"That would be killing the goose that laid the $12,000 golden egg," he added, referring to the funds the Fraga family had been paid by various government programs for the care of the two children.

It was only after Fraga saw the pictures of Samantha's bottom that he claimed he had erectile dysfunction, Klumpp pointed out.

"But the amount of semen in the defendant's home, (his wife's) testimony and the fact that he had four children says otherwise," Klumpp stated.

King gave the closing argument for the defense, and referred to Fraga as "honest and forthright."

She pointed out that Fraga's 13-year-old son was almost as tall as his father and questioned the teen's role in Samantha's death.

"We're not blaming (the 13-year-old)," King said. "Josue Fraga is a man who loves his children, and can't fathom the prospect that his 13-year-old boy could have done something so horrible."

King then went on to describe the Fragas as a happy family, pointing out photos of construction paper drawings and family pictures on the walls of the mobile home.

"A happy family?" Klumpp questioned during rebuttal, than grabbed the notebooks that had been seized from the children's bedroom and backpacks containing drawings that ranged from depictions of a dead child to sketches of people involved in anal intercourse.

Although each Fraga child was asked during testimony, none of them claimed the drawings as their work.

"These show a hidden aspect of the Fraga home," he added.

It took less than five hours for the jury to find Fraga guilty on all three counts. Shortly after 9 p.m. May 14, Fraga was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole and remanded to the custody of the Nobles County Sheriff 's Office.

As the court administrator read the verdicts of all three charges, Fraga sat frozen, with his hands over his mouth and anguish on his face.

When asked if he had anything to say, Fraga spoke for the first time since the trial began.

"You guys are probably used to hearing this, but I didn't do it," he said. "I can't explain all this. I love every single one of my kids and I love my brothers' kids like my own."

He thanked the jury for their hard work, adding that he believed differently, but thanked them nonetheless.

Fraga said he understood he had just lost the trial, but to him, the greatest loss was not his freedom, but his family.

"I can't see them. I love my family, I love my kids," he stated emotionally. "In my heart and my conscience, I'm innocent. I know I am. I know I am."

After Fraga was led away by law enforcement, the mood in the courtroom was one of quiet contemplation and relief.

"It was necessary that this day come, but it is not a day for gloating or celebration," Moore stated. "A child is dead and nothing can bring her back."

On Aug. 13, a notice was filed with the Minnesota Appellate Courts that Fraga intends to appeal, but the brief has not yet been filed. An order granting Fraga an extension of time to file the brief by Feb. 19, 2010, was filed Dec. 1.