Judge in Sierra LaMar Case Denies Change of Venue; Trial Remains in Santa Clara County

In an expected move, a Santa Clara County Superior court judge  on Thursday denied a change of venue in the murder trial of Antolin Garcia Torres, who is charged with killing Sierra LaMar four years ago.

The decision by Judge Vanessa Zecher means the Torres case remains at the San Jose Hall of Justice. It also follows on the heels of two other key issues - evidence suppression and negative publicity - that were addressed earlier this month.

"I'm not surprised," legal analyst Steven Clark told NBC Bay Area. "What you may see is the judge revisiting the issue if it becomes apparent that media coverage and community involvement in the Sierra LaMar search, that people say we can't be fair here. When we look at Garcia-Torres, we're not sitting here unbiased."

The Morgan Hill teen went missing March 16, 2012 and Garcia Torres, 22, was soon arrested and charged with murder even though no body has been found.

On Aug. 19, Deputy Alternate Defender Brian Matthews wrote in an unsuccesful argument to the court that Garcia Torres’ case should be moved out of Santa Clara County. That's because, the defense said, the nature and gravity of the offense, as well as the extent of the news coverage, would make it extremely difficult to find an impartial jury.

The news coverage has been so pervasive, including reporters who "live tweet" the hearings, the lawyers wrote, that "prejudice has set in." A survey the lawyers noted showed that 81 percent of the respondents who answered questions about the case recognized the defendant's name, and that 53 percent believed Torres was already guilty.

However, the judge ultimately decided with Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen, who argued that Torres would indeed get a reasonable likelihood of an impartial jury. The “vast population” of Santa Clara County “unquestionably weighs strongly against a change of venue in this case,” Rosen urged the court.

In court papers submitted Aug. 1, Rosen cited  “numerous” California Supreme Court cases that ruled that capital defendants have received fair trials in the counties where the crimes were committed.

And the fact that Sierra’s body has still never been found means that this case “involving heinous facts of the crime itself,” is not a sensational issue because the “manner of her death is unknown,” Rosen wrote as yet another reason why the venue shouldn't be moved.

Finally, Rosen said that even if the court were to “blindly” accept the defense attorneys survey about who is already prejudiced about the case, survey results such as these are not “unprecedented, nor do they compel a change of venue,” Rosen wrote.

Granting a change of venue is not the norm, but it does occur.

In 2004, a judge allowed for Scott Peterson's murder trial to be moved out of Stanislaus County after he was accused of killing his pregnant wife, Laci Peterson. And former BART officer Johannes Mehserle's case was moved out of Alameda County after Oscar Grant was killed in 2009.

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