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Ten years on, trial begins for man accused of punk icon's murder

By Elbert Garcia
Court TV

Mia Zapata was preparing for a European tour when she was murdered in July 1993.

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(Court TV) -- Ten years after the mysterious murder of up-and-coming punk singer Mia Zapata, her case will finally be heard in a Seattle courtroom, when opening statements begin Monday in the trial of Cuban native, Jesus Mezquia.

Authorities charged the 48-year-old fisherman last January with Zapata's murder after matching his DNA with saliva samples found on the body of the Gits lead vocalist.

Mezquia, of Marathon, Florida, had his DNA file entered into a national database after a felony conviction for possession of burglary tools. He was extradited to Washington three months later and arraigned in Seattle last April. Although he pleaded not guilty to the charges and denies ever meeting Zapata, prosecutors say the forensic evidence gives them a more than solid case.

"[The DNA evidence] is powerful, pivotal and compelling evidence," said King County Senior Deputy Prosecutor Steve Fogg.

Mezquia's defense team tried to have the DNA evidence thrown out in pretrial motions last week, but Judge Sharon Armstrong ruled the DNA evidence was obtained and verified legally in Florida and Washington. She also ruled that neither Zapata's diary nor references to her romantic life would be admitted.

"After 11 years of waiting for this moment it is hard to believe some semblance of justice may be achieved," wrote former Gits guitarist Steve Moriarty, who is posting regular updates of the trial on the band's Web site.

Thoroughly punk

Mezquia's arrest opened up old wounds among Zapata's family, friends and colleagues. The Gits were a four-member band from Antioch College in Ohio who moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1989. Although they shared early billing with acts like Nirvana, they were not part of the grunge scene that put Seattle on the national music map. Led by the 27-year-old Zapata, they were known for not compromising their punk roots or changing their socially conscious lyrics.

"I try to make my lyrics a universal thing that relates to people," Zapata told the Seattle Times shortly before her death. "When people twice my age and half my age can relate to us, we must be doing something right."

While the group's stubbornness may have delayed its fame, things were looking up. The band was finishing its second album and preparing to go on a European tour. Many thought they would be thrust into the national limelight after their performance at New York's New Music Seminar, a popular showcase.

Zapata was known as an outspoken feminist with tremendous creative talent, not only in music, but also in art and fiction. Her diverse singing style incorporated jazz, blues and punk.

The last night

Zapata started the evening of July 6, 1993, at a local bar, the Comet Tavern, with friends who were commemorating the one-year anniversary of a fellow musician's death. She left at about midnight to look for a friend who lived nearby but, not finding him, hung out until 2 a.m. at another friend's apartment.

Zapata went out to catch a cab, but 80 minutes later, authorities found her raped and strangled with the chord of her Gits-branded sweatshirt. Her body was fixed in a cross-like position.

Police at first suspected the killing was part of a pattern or had a religious motivation. But they also knew there was a strong chance that the killer was a total stranger.

In addition to the DNA evidence, prosecutor Fogg said there is more than sufficient evidence that places Mezquia near the crime scene. Police know he resided in the city from 1992 to 1994, and lived by himself in a house 10 blocks from where the murder took place.

Prosecutors are expected to show jurors an indecent exposure complaint filed against Mezquia five weeks after the murder. According to the police report, Mezquia tried to lure a young lady into his car, near where Zapata's body was found, while he was masturbating. This and prior arrests and convictions for kidnapping, battery and assault help describe a man who was aggressive toward women.

Key testimony will also be provided by former acquaintances of Mezquia as well as those who knew Zapata. Although prosecutors sometimes have a hard time tracking down witnesses in such old cases, Fogg said there would be no such problems with this case.

"Mia Zapata was such a progressive force in this community that people have bent over backwards to help track down virtually everyone who saw her that night, " he said.

Media and community join in

Although the remaining band members broke up the Gits soon after Zapata's death, her life continued to inspire others. Fellow musician Valerie Agnew founded Home Alive, a nonprofit that offers affordable self-defense classes for women. A 1996 benefit concert featuring contributions from Nirvana, Soundgarden, Foo Fighters, Pearl Jam and a host of others helped raise money for the charity and a private investigator.

The Gits even re-released songs, with popular rocker Joan Jett singing Zapata's vocals, hoping to spread a greater awareness of the singer's life and death.

Since Mezquia's arrest, the national media has also become involved, with CBS's news magazine "48 Hours" paying prominent attention to the case.

The amount of press within the city initially persuaded a judge at Mezquia's arraignment to grant a defense motion to ban photographers and TV cameras from issuing pictures of the suspect so as to not prejudice future jurors. However, that order has been lifted and the selection process extended a couple of days longer than originally forecasted.

Mezquia's defense lawyer, Jim Robinson of the nonprofit public defense organization Associated Counsel for the Accused, could not be reached for comment about the defense he plans to present.

Fogg, however, says he is looking forward to presenting the case to a jury and drawing the tragedy to a close.

"There is solid evidence to support the prosecution," guitarist Moriarty told fans at the beginning of jury selection this past Monday. "We are confident that the King County prosecutors are extremely competent and dedicated to winning this case."

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