A Riverside jury Wednesday recommended the death penalty for a welder who abducted and killed a 17-year-old Moreno Valley girl nearly nine years ago.
The five-woman, seven-man panel deliberated 90 minutes before reaching a verdict in the penalty trial of Jesse Perez Torres, who killed Norma Angelica Lopez on July 15, 2010.
Torres, 42, showed no reaction as the decision was announced. The victim’s mother, younger sister and several other family members wept quietly.
Riverside County Superior Court Judge Bernard Schwartz scheduled a status conference for April 12 at the Riverside Hall of Justice, when he will hear a motion by the defense seeking an Atkins hearing to determine whether Torres is intellectually disabled.
Defense attorney Darryl Exum argued throughout the penalty trial that his client was mentally impaired. The Atkins process, based on a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision, is intended to determine whether a cognitive disability exists. If so, the impaired defendant cannot be sentenced to death because, per the High Court standard, it would be a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which bars cruel and unusual punishment of offenders.
In his closing statement in the penalty trial, Deputy District Attorney Michael Kersse said: “What fear do you think Norma Lopez felt when this man took her? What terror was flowing through her body? This was a 34-year-old man. She must’ve known what he wanted.”
“He had been waiting, watching and lusting for her,” the prosecutor said. “Think of the breath being squeezed from Norma’s body as he held his cold hands around her throat. That pain of losing her vital breath. Did she try to call out for her father or her mother?”
Kersse argued that Torres’ “brazen evilness” and its impact on the victim’s family, friends and community demanded that he receive capital punishment.
The prosecutor pointed to a September 2011 attack on a homeless prostitute, identified in court records only as Miss Rose, as a further example of the defendant’s “hatred of women” and “evil heart.”
The woman was taken at knifepoint by Torres outside a Long Beach liquor store, then driven to the defendant’s home, where he bound and raped her, videotaping and photographing the injurious assault, according to Kersse, who emphasized that the attack happened 14 months after Norma was kidnapped and killed.
“It tells you everything about what kind of man this is,” Kersse said.
The prosecutor said jurors, who last week convicted the defendant of first-degree murder and found true a special circumstance allegation of killing in the course of a kidnapping, should consider the “unimaginable situation” that defined the final hour of Norma’s life.
“He wanted her for his evil sexual gratification,” Kersse said. “What mercy did he show her? What sympathy? None. Norma is dead and that monster is not. And that’s just wrong.”
Exum told jurors in his summation that they had “the strength to stop the death penalty in this case.”
“Does Jesse deserve mercy, or do you just kill him?” Exum asked. “To die in prison, never seeing the light of freedom again, is a serious penalty.”
Exum acknowledged that nothing he could say would “eclipse” the unfathomable pain with which the Lopez family lives, and there was no doubt his client showed the girl “no mercy.”
“But justice is not vengeance,” he said. “It means being impartial, unattached at the end. Jesse is afforded your consideration. The punishment must fit the person.”
The evidentiary portion of Torres’ six-week trial concluded last week, during which prosecutors reminded jurors that the defendant had “left his DNA all over (Norma’s) pants, purse, earring.”
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.
The defendant had been required to submit DNA samples after a domestic violence incident. According to Deputy District Attorney Kevin Beecham, testing on the DNA strands collected from the teen’s garments and possessions 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 the victim 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 along Theodore Street, at the eastern edge of Moreno Valley, amid sweltering heat. Her body was found on July 20, 2010.
The prosecution 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 adjacent to Cottonwood Avenue, “where no one could hear her scream,” Beecham said.
Torres tailed her in his Nissan Xterra, driving into the field, where he overpowered the victim, whose broken earring and other articles left behind indicated that she’d tried to resist him.
Prosecutors do not believe the defendant succeeded in sexually assaulting Norma. It is unclear exactly where she was killed.