Growing up in a shack in the middle of the San Martin strawberry fields where his Mexican-born parents picked fruit, convicted murderer Antolin Garcia Torres may have been exposed to harmful pesticides, perchlorates and "possibly" mercury, a toxicologist will likely testify in the coming weeks.
Garcia Torres, 26, was convicted May 9 of the 2012 murder of 15-year-old Sierra LaMar as well as the attempted kidnappings of three women in 2009.
Along with details of Garcia Torres' impoverished and domestic abuse-riddled upbringing, the testimony would likely be presented to the jury to elicit sympathy as his defense attorneys fight for a life sentence without parole, rather than the death penalty.
Prosecutors filed a motion Monday to preclude Florida-based toxicologist Andres Lugo's testimony on the grounds that it is "based upon speculative inferences" and runs the risk of misleading the jury or confusing the issues.
In a hearing outside the presence of the jury Thursday afternoon, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Vanessa Zecher did not issue a definitive ruling, but said she was inclined to allow the testimony.
Prosecutors asked that the defense exercise particular caution with any testimony about "possible" mercury exposure, citing a lack of evidence.
"[Lugo] can't even say, and the defense can't produce, anyone saying anything about mercury," prosecutor David Boyd said. "Not even Dr. Lugo can find the source in this... When he says 'possible,' what he's saying is 'I don't have it.'"
Zecher expressed doubt as to the issue's weight, considering that, as with testimony from a psychologist who met with the defendant last year, Lugo would testify "under the same parameters that there's no connection being made" between the alleged exposure and any particular impact on Garcia-Torres.
The Berkeley-based psychologist, Gretchen White, met with an uncooperative Garcia Torres in November and has interviewed his ex-girlfriend, his parents and dozens of other relatives to compile a "psychosocial history" of the murderer's life.
Boyd and defense attorney Brian Matthews questioned White at a hearing outside the presence of the jury on Wednesday morning about her conclusions, which she said were not based on anything Garcia-Torres said to her in their 40-minute meeting or on the statements made by any of Garcia Torres' friends or family members in a 34-page sealed report compiled by an investigator.
"It's common sense. That's common sense," Zecher said today of White's assessment that the poverty, violence, abuse, addiction, neglect and incest present in Garcia Torres' childhood home would have had an effect on him. "You may not need an expert for that."
The defense maintains Garcia-Torres' innocence, so any evidence about his background cannot be presented as an excuse or explanation for his crimes.
"This is really about humanizing [Matthews'] client, for lack of a better word," Zecher said.
The defense will call its first witness when the penalty phase of the trial resumes Monday morning.