The mother of convicted murderer Antolin Garcia Torres testified through tears in a San Jose courtroom Monday, describing through two Spanish-English interpreters the horrors of poverty, abuse and loss that have ravaged her family for decades.
Garcia Torres, 26, was convicted earlier this month of the first-degree murder of 15-year-old Sierra LaMar in 2012 and the attempted kidnappings of three women in 2009. The jury is set to decide in the coming weeks whether to impose the death penalty or life in prison without parole.
Defense attorney Brian Matthews called Laura Torres as his team's first witness in the penalty phase, in which the defense will present sympathetic evidence about the myriad traumas and disadvantages Garcia Torres and his family faced prior to the murder of the missing teen.
Torres spoke of the physical and emotional abuse she endured from her alcoholic ex-husband Genaro Garcia Fernandez, who she married in a small Mexican town when she was just 13.
Showing photos of a younger Torres with a sheet of ankle-length brown hair, Matthews asked the woman about the time Garcia Fernandez wrapped her long braid around her neck and pulled.
"Were you very afraid?" Matthews asked.
"So much that I cut my hair," Torres, who now has shoulder-length black hair, said through an interpreter.
Garcia Fernandez sometimes drank an entire 12-pack of beer and called her names and hit her when he was drunk, including at least three times during her pregnancy with Garcia Torres.
During that pregnancy, Garcia Fernandez threatened to kill Torres and the children, she said, recalling an incident in which he lit a fire under the family car.
At night, Torres said, "He would tell us, 'You know you're going to bed but you don't know if you're going to get up.'"
During that pregnancy, Torres took her older children and moved in with Garcia Fernandez's parents in Saint Helena to escape her husband for a few months, she said.
When asked why she chose to stay with her in-laws and not her own family, Torres said, "Because I wanted to show everyone that it wasn't my fault."
Matthews made no mention of the fact that Garcia Fernandez is serving a life sentence for the sexual abuse of a female relative from age 5 to 14, while Garcia Torres was a child. He was convicted in 2012.
Describing Garcia Torres as a "loving, responsible" son who took on a protective role in the family after his older brother Benny was lost to drugs, jail, deportation and eventually death, Torres said, "Even now, as he is, he supports me."
"What the defense is trying to do is set the stage for a psychologist to come in and say this is the impact this kind of childhood can have on a person," legal analyst Steven Clark said. "This was also a mother's plea not to be ignored."
Torres brings Garcia Torres' two young daughters every time she visits him in San Jose's Main Jail, she said, describing the visits as "happy" and noting that the two talk to their father on the phone every weekend, which is as often as he is allowed.
"What they are saying through his mom's testimony is that he could still have a relevant impact on his children's lives if the jury decides not to execute him," Clark said.
Torres wept as Matthews repeatedly asked her whether she wanted Garcia Torres to be executed or to receive a life sentence.
"What mother would be asked if she wants her son to be killed or not?" Torres asked. "My other son has already died. He's my only son."
NBC Bay Area's Marianne Favro contributed to this report.