A guilty verdict was reached Wednesday in the trial of a man accused of kidnapping and killing 17-year-old Riverside County girl.
Jesse Perez Torres, 42, was charged with first-degree murder and a special circumstance allegation of killing in the course of a kidnapping for the July 2010 death of Norma Angelica Lopez. The penalty phase of the trial is scheduled to begin Thursday.
The Moreno Valley girl's remains were found by a landscaper July 20, 2010 after being left in an olive tree grove at the eastern edge of Moreno Valley. Photos displayed by the prosecution during the trial showed the teen head down, nude from the waist up, wearing blue jeans but no shoes.
The district attorney argued that Torres could easily have seen 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.
Prosecutors said DNA evidence strongly supports a conviction.
"The DNA is the most important evidence in this case," Riverside County Deputy District Attorney Kevin Beecham told jurors Monday during his closing statement in the trial of Jesse Perez Torres. "It is the most damning evidence we have.
"He left his DNA all over her ... pants, purse, earring. It all points to the same person. It's too coincidental to be a coincidence."
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 Dorr 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."