November 06, 1995 12:00 PM

JUSTICE, IN THIS CASE, WAS MERCIFULLY swift. In the months after March 31, when Latina singing idol Selena was shot to death outside a Corpus Christi, Texas, motel room, her shaken family and friends grappled with their grief—and with the grim prospect of a protracted, sensational trial for her accused killer. But on Oct. 23, after two brisk weeks in a Houston courtroom, it took just 2½ hours for a six-man, six-woman jury to reject defense claims that the shooting was accidental and find Yolanda Saldívar, 35, guilty of first-degree murder. Saldívar—president of Selena’s fan club and once a close confidante of the Grammy-winning singer—dissolved in muffled sobs when the verdict was read. Across the courtroom, Abraham Quintanilla, 56, Selena’s father and manager, sat stoically beside her ponytailed widower and onetime guitarist, Chris Pérez, 26. “It was a relief,” Quintanilla says. “But the hurt is still there; the pain is still there.”

When the guilty verdict was announced, some 200 fans on San Jacinto Street outside the yellow-brick Harris County courthouse burst into a frenzy of cheering, clapping and fist-pumping. Horns honked from passing cars and pickup trucks—and within minutes the area had acquired the festive ambience of a neighborhood block party.

Yet the merriment was tinged with sorrow. “All of us in the Spanish-speaking countries will never have a full heart,” says Trino Zital, 56, a Mexican now living in the U.S. who was passing out copies of “Selena the Angel,” a folk song he composed after the star’s death. “Her spirit still lives, because if it wasn’t for that I would die, too,” reads one verse. “Our queen of Texas is always going to sing to us.”

And so in death, Selena—who spoke with a Texas twang and wasn’t fluent in Spanish until her 20s—has been beatified by the Hispanic community on both sides of the border. Beginning her career as a 9-year-old, rattling around south Texas in a battered van with her family, she grew up to be the biggest star of Tejano, a musical style that is a mélange of traditional Mexican music, American pop and polka. At her death she seemed on the verge of mainstream stardom. Strutting about the stage in garish, often skimpy attire, she was sometimes compared to Madonna. But Selena’s electric presence projected not studied vulgarity but an innate sweetness. “She was such a great person,” says Michelle Moreno, 28, a student at the University of Houston who joined in the post-verdict revelry. “She meant so much to the Latino people. We’ll never put her behind us.” Adds a teenage girl who was standing nearby: “She [Saldívar] thinks she killed Selena, but she only made her more alive, because more people know of her now.”

Thanks in no small part to her father, who managed her career from the start. Quintanilla has marketed Selena relentlessly—perhaps even more so since her death—continuing to oversee the family’s two boutiques, with their line of Selena T-shirts, jeans, jewelry and posters. In the past few months, Quintanilla has signed a deal for a biographical film and released a posthumous Selena album. He also attracted money for an educational foundation in her name by approving a biography of the singer that bears this note: “If you would like to deliver a message of condolence to the Quintanilla-Perez family, please call 1-900-786-9000. Each call will cost $3.99.”

The image of Quintanilla as a grasping manipulator was at the foundation of Saldívar’s defense: Her lawyers tried to convince the jury that Quintanilla is “an extremely controlling person” who indirectly caused his own daughter’s death. Madly jealous of Selena’s relationship with Saldívar, her attorneys argued, he threatened the defendant physically and falsely accused her of skimming money from the Selena businesses; once, Saldívar said on a tape played at the trial, he raped her. The shooting, according to the defense, occurred when the two women were arguing over the embezzlement accusation at the Corpus Christi Days Inn. Contrary to the state’s charge that she willfully shot Selena, whose boutiques she managed, Saldívar claims she was distraught and had intended to kill herself, but that when she gestured to Selena to close the door, her pistol accidentally discharged into the singer’s back.

“At first I felt angered, then I felt hurt,” Quintanilla says of the courtroom accusations, which he denied on the witness stand. “How dare they say these lies about me? We would go to a restaurant and people would just be looking at me. You start developing a guilty conscience.”

The trial, for all its brevity, was arduous—at one point his wife, Selena’s mother, Marcela, 51, had to be hospitalized with chest pains. “I had never been in a courtroom in my life, and it scared me,” Quintanilla says. “I could see man’s imperfection clouding justice. It’s very hard to sit there and not defend yourself. I hope now people understand this woman [Saldívar] was trying to save her skin—and in the process was lying through her teeth.”

Quintanilla also bristles at suggestions that he is cashing in on Selena’s death. If anything, he feels he is merely trying to satisfy the seemingly insatiable hunger for all things Selena. “We’ve had tons of letters from fans asking, ‘Please don’t stop Selena’s music—that’s all we have left of her,’ ” he says. In addition, he insists, the music and merchandise pay homage to his daughter. “We wanted to make her dream [of mainstream success] come true,” says Quintanilla, “and that’s what we’re doing,”

Of late, Quintanilla, who manages seven Tejano acts, has been promoting another dynamic young female singer, 12-year-old Jennifer Peña, who lives in Corpus Christi with her parents, Jaime and Mary. And that has led to still more sniping, from those who say he is trying to create a second Selena. “There will never be another Selena,” he says sadly, adding that he met Peña after the girl’s mother sent him a demo tape. “Jennifer is simply a young lady with a lot of talent. We want to build on her own image and abilities.”

In the coming months, there are plans to publish a Quintanilla family history. “It’s about pursuing the American dream,” explains Quintanilla, who launched Selena’s band Los Dinos (The Guys)—which featured her brother Abraham III (A.B.), 32, and sister Suzette, 28—after the family restaurant in Lake Jackson, Texas, folded in 1981. “My family started from scratch, from the ground, together.”

Where the clan will go next is uncertain, at least after March 1996, when Los Dinos will launch a farewell tour across the U.S. Chris Pérez is haltingly emerging from his grief—though he suffered a setback after the verdict, when, according to Quintanilla, he sat slouched in the family’s Houston hotel suite, staring into space: ” ‘It’s over,’ he said, softly. I think it all hit him.”

Selena’s bereaved father sympathizes with the family of Yolanda Saldívar. “I feel they are victims of this too,” he says. “Because at the end of the day, she is their daughter and they love her.” In this he is more magnanimous than some of Selena’s public. Amid the post-verdict cacophony outside the courthouse, for instance, one crude placard, bearing the inscription “Hang the Witch,” depicted Saldívar with a noose around her neck. “Put her away, hopefully for life,” Houston homemaker Celinda Santos, 47, said angrily at the scene. “She better find a hole. She’s not going to last out here.” Santos’s husband, Tony, 51, a retired Vietnam veteran wearing a Selena cap, invoked another high-profile case: “Now bring us O.J. You do the crime, you do the time.”

But Quintanilla rejects thoughts of vengeance. “I don’t have any hatred for her,” he says of Saldívar. “I hate what she’s done. She took my daughter’s life. We’ll never get to grow old with her, never get to see the children she could have had. She took all of this away from us.”

RICHARD JEROME

ANNE MAIER, BETTY CORTINA and JOSEPH HARMES in Houston

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