Sierra LaMar: Verdict to be read in court Tuesday morning
(Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)
SAN JOSE — The jury has reached a verdict in the murder trial of the man accused of killing missing teen Sierra LaMar, who disappeared five years ago from a rural community north of Morgan Hill while on her way to her school bus stop.
The verdict, which will be read in Santa Clara County Superior Court at 9 am Tuesday, comes after the jury began mid-day Thursday and follows a trial that lasted more than three months. The jury only met for a half day Friday, meaning it reached consensus in just under two full days.
Antolin Garcia-Torres, 26, has pleaded not guilty to one count of murder and three counts of trying to kidnap and carjack three women in 2009 as they returned to their cars late at night in Morgan Hill supermarket parking lots.
If the jury convicts him of first-degree murder, the same panel would then weigh whether he should be sentenced to life without parole or death, after hearing evidence from both the prosecution and the defense.
Judge Vanessa A. Zecher has said she will give the defense and prosecution up to a week to prepare for the penalty phase. The defense has estimated its case could take a maximum of three weeks, meaning the penalty phase — if there is one — could end in early to mid-June.
However, if the jury convicts Garcia-Torres of second-degree murder, he would face 15 years to life in prison.
But if Garcia-Torres is acquitted, the law prevents prosecutors from trying him again for her murder even if new evidence arises.
If the penalty phase is set to begin before a juror with a pre-planned vacation starting next week has not returned, one of the seven alternate jurors would step in to help decide on the death penalty or life without parole.
Sierra’s body has not been found, despite a yearslong effort by more than 750 volunteers from around the Bay Area since she disappeared on the morning of March 16, 2012.
Without her body, prosecutor David Boyd faced an extra hurdle in winning a conviction. He had to prove the case without an autopsy, a murder weapon or witness statements.
The prosecution said they found traces of Sierra’s DNA in Garcia-Torres’ car, including on a single strand of her hair on a rope in the trunk, and that his DNA was on her pants found abandoned in a field. He told police they never met.
Garcia-Torres’ fingerprint also was found on a battery found on a stun gun dropped by the assailant in one of the supermarket attacks, which the prosecution contends was a “training ground” for Sierra’s abduction and murder three years later.
But defense attorney Al Lopez said the fingerprint could have gotten there because Garcia-Torres worked at the Morgan Hill Safeway where the battery was purchased and frequently re-shelved torn battery packages.
The defense also claimed Sierra is not dead, saying she ran away without a trace primarily because she was unhappy about having to move from her beloved Fremont to Morgan Hill with her mom and mom’s boyfriend.
And the defense also said the jury should disregard the DNA and hair evidence because it was mishandled by deputies and crime lab analysts, raising the chances of cross-contamination from other trace or genetic evidence.
Lopez also said detectives also failed to investigate a tip from a woman who saw a brown car that was weaving and pulled over to the side of the road on the same street as Sierra’s bus stop.