The penalty trial will get underway Thursday for a 42-year-old welder who kidnapped and killed a 17-year-old Moreno Valley girl more than eight years ago.
A seven-man, five-woman jury in Riverside on Wednesday convicted Jesse Perez Torres of first-degree murder for the July 2010 death of Norma Angelica Lopez. Along with the murder count, jurors found true a special circumstance allegation of killing in the course of a kidnapping, making Torres eligible for the death penalty.
The same panel that convicted Torres will decide whether to recommend capital punishment or life in prison without the possibility of parole. The penalty phase of the trial is expected to conclude Tuesday.
The evidentiary portion of Torres’ monthlong trial concluded last week, and Riverside County Deputy District Attorney Kevin Beecham referenced expert witnesses called by the prosecution to establish the “strong” forensic link between Torres and Norma’s death.
“He left his DNA all over her … pants, purse, earring,” Beecham told jurors in his closing statement. “It all points to the same person.”
The prosecutor underscored the link between the carpet fibers located inside Torres’ former Moreno Valley residence and the ones later gleaned from the dead teenager’s underpants.
“Those carpet fibers were nowhere to be found in Norma’s environment, only the defendant’s environment,” Beecham said.
No DNA matches were initially found in the state’s Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, in the months immediately following Norma’s slaying. But according to the prosecution, that changed by September 2011, when potential matches were identified out of the 1.8 million individuals whose biological identities were then in the database.
The defendant had been required to provide DNA samples after a domestic violence incident in early 2011. According to Beecham, testing on the DNA strands collected from Norma’s garments and possessions, both at the scene of her abduction and where her body was placed, revealed that the chance of an errant forensic profile was 1 in 5.87 million.
“It’s Mr. Torres’ DNA,” Beecham said.
Defense attorney John Door argued that the DNA evidence was likely tainted, pointing specifically to crime scene photographs showing that the broken earring that had been ripped from Norma’s body was moved several times by evidence technicians before it was collected and processed.
Dorr said the prosecution’s contention that Torres, who is roughly the same height as Norma was, could have snatched her and drove away with her by himself was implausible.
He questioned the motive for the crime, noting there was “no sign of a sexual assault” in autopsy results. However, Beecham said it was clear from the bruises on Norma’s thighs and other indications of how she had been roughly handled before her death that a sexual assault was at least attempted.
The county’s chief pathologist, Dr. Mark Fajardo, testified that he could only speculate as to exactly how Norma was killed, suggesting that “strangulation or asphyxiation” was possible.
Fajardo said that the girl’s remains were in a degraded state after being left in an olive tree grove on Theodore Street, at the eastern edge of Moreno Valley, amid sweltering heat. She was found in the early afternoon of July 20, 2010, by a man on a tractor, doing landscaping. Photos displayed by the prosecution showed the teen head down, nude from the waist up, wearing blue jeans but no shoes.
Beecham said Torres could easily have observed Norma from his then-residence at 13173 Creekside Way, watching her whenever she left Valley View High School, where she was taking a morning biology class for the summer.
Every day that she’d left the campus for several weeks, she had been with her boyfriend. But on July 15, 2010, he was behind schedule, and she set off on her own, heading across a field “where no one could hear her scream,” Beecham said.
Torres tailed her in his green Nissan Xterra, driving into the field, where he overpowered the girl, who “tried to fight back” but was subdued, the prosecutor said.