RIVERSIDE (CNS) - A 42-year-old man was convicted of first-degree murder today for kidnapping and killing a 17-year-old Moreno Valley girl more than eight years ago.
Jesse Perez Torres faces a possible death sentence for the July 2010 death of Norma Angelica Lopez. In addition to convicting Torres of murder, jurors also found true the special circumstance allegation of killing in the course of a kidnapping.
The trial will now move to a penalty phase, during which the jury will recommend a sentence of either death or life in prison without parole for Torres.
During his closing argument, Riverside County Deputy District Attorney Kevin Beecham told jurors, ``The DNA is the most important evidence in this case. It is the most damning evidence we have.''
The evidentiary portion of Torres' monthlong trial concluded last week, and 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 said. ``It all points to the same person. It's too coincidental to be a coincidence.''
The prosecutor also underscored the evidentiary connection 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, better known as 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 prosecutor looked the defendant directly in the eye, stating, ``You killed Norma Lopez, and you dumped her under that tree like garbage.''
Torres cast his eyes toward the jury box, replying softly, ``I didn't do it. I didn't do it.''
Defense attorney John Door argued that the DNA evidence was likely tainted.
``We showed with our forensic expert that this evidence was handled inappropriately,'' the attorney said. ``The DNA was contaminated.''
He pointed 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.
``This was a two-person job,'' the attorney said.
He questioned the motive for the crime, noting there was ``no sign of a sexual assault'' in autopsy results, and he characterized the carpet fiber clues as dubious.
``Those fibers could have come from any of hundreds of homes in Southern California,'' Dorr said. ``A million square feet of that type of carpet is produced every year.''
Riverside County's chief pathologist, Dr. Mark Fajardo, testified that he could only speculate as to exactly how Norma was killed, though he eventually formed an opinion that it was homicidal violence.
``There are a number of ways to kill someone without leaving a mark,'' the witness testified. ``Strangulation or asphyxiation is 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. The victim headed south on Creekside, east to Quail Creek Drive, then south again on Mill Creek Road before crossing an open field toward Cottonwood Avenue, where her older sister, Sonia Lopez, and friends gathered almost daily that summer.
A security surveillance videotape from a house looking down on Creekside captured the last images of Norma alive, walking the route. The tape also showed, moments later, a green SUV cruising slowly in the direction that she was walking, shortly after 10 a.m. The vehicle re-appeared less than five minutes later, speeding away from the area. According to the prosecution, Torres owned a green Nissan Xterra at the time.