For abducting and taking the life of a 17-year-old Moreno Valley girl, a 42-year-old welder should receive “the full of extent of justice” and be executed, a prosecutor said Thursday, while the man’s attorney argued that because his client is “intellectually disabled,” his life should be spared.
“I am going to ask you to consider how this horrific crime impacted the community and Norma’s family,” Riverside County Deputy District Attorney Kevin Beecham told jurors in the opening statement of the penalty trial for Jesse Perez Torres. “Consider the impact this had Norma’s mother, who waited five agonizing days, hoping to see her daughter’s face again.”
A five-woman, seven-man jury in Riverside Wednesday convicted Torres of first-degree murder and found true a special circumstance allegation of killing in the course of a kidnapping, making the defendant eligible for the death penalty, for the July 2010 slaying of 17-year-old Norma Angelica Lopez.
The same panel will now decide to recommend capital punishment or life in prison without possibility of parole for Torres.
Beecham focused on the pain and emotional devastation the loss of Norma had on her loved ones, which was exacerbated by the way her remains were “treated like garbage,” dumped under a tree to rot. The prosecutor also emphasized how her fellow students, as well as teachers, at Valley View High School were impacted by the murder.
“They started a Never-Walk-Alone Movement,” Beecham told jurors. “Remember, it was 15 months from the time of the crime to the time Mr. Torres was arrested.”
According to Beecham, evidence surfaced shortly after the defendant’s arrest in October 2011 that he had allegedly beaten and raped a prostitute in Long Beach. Torres held a knife on the victim and forced her to accompany him to his apartment, where he videotaped and photographed part of the assault, Beecham alleged.
The defendant was not charged, but the prosecutor said jurors should view the incident as an aggravating factor.
“Consider the horrific circumstances of the crimes this man has committed,” Beecham said. “I ask you to give the full extent of justice, for which this defendant is deserving, and that is death.”
Torres’ attorney, Darryl Exum, told jurors he did not believe his client’s “life is worth more than anyone else’s,” but when looking at his background and challenges in childhood, “life without parole is the most appropriate sentence in this case.”
“One of his teachers identified him in high school as `at-risk,”’ Exum said. “He is intellectually disabled. For lack of a better term, he’s not `normal.’ ”
The attorney vowed not to “make any excuses” for Torres’ actions, but argued that it was necessary for jurors to “understand who he is” before deciding “the punishment that is commensurate with the person.”
Exum dismissed the credibility of the prostitute, saying her testimony would not hold up in court.
“In the end, I will ask you to spare the life of Jesse,” he said.
The evidentiary portion of Torres’ monthlong trial concluded last week, and Beecham earlier referenced expert witnesses who established the “strong” forensic link between Torres and Norma’s death.
“He left his DNA all over her … pants, purse, earring,” Beecham said. “It all points to the same person.”
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.
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 landscaper.
Beecham said Torres could easily have observed Norma from his then-residence at 13173 Creekside Way, watching her whenever she left Valley View High, 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, sealing her fate, the prosecutor said.