RIVERSIDE – The Riverside County district attorney will seek the death penalty for a man accused of abducting and killing a Moreno Valley teenager — a decision that was based on input from a number of sources, including the girl’s family, a spokesman confirmed today.
Jesse Perez Torres, 36, is accused of murdering Norma Angelica Lopez in July 2010. Last month, following a four-hour preliminary hearing, a Superior Court judge ruled there was sufficient evidence to warrant a trial in the case.
District attorney’s spokesman John Hall said D.A. Paul Zellerbach met with senior prosecutors and sheriff’s investigators involved in the case and that ”appropriate input from family members of the murder victim” was sought as part of the process of determining whether to seek capital punishment for Torres if he’s convicted.
But Zellerbach had the final say.
”It is required by state law that the elected district attorney personally make the decision whether or not to seek the death penalty in any murder case … The decision is solely that of the district attorney,” Hall told City News Service.
According to court records, Senior Deputy District Attorney Mike Soccio notified the court Tuesday that the D.A. intended to pursue a death sentence.
According to Soccio, Torres became a prime suspect after the defendant’s forensic information was registered in the state’s Combined DNA Index System – – known as CODIS — and came back matching evidence collected at the scene of Norma’s abduction.
Torres was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence within months of the murder, and at the time of his arrest, he had been required to provide a DNA sample, Soccio said.
The Lopez case had gone cold for a full year after the 17-year-old’s death.
According to Soccio, investigators followed up on about 2,000 leads that went nowhere. The CODIS DNA ”hit” registered in September 2011. Torres was arrested in connection with the case the following month.
Forensic analysts testified that the California Department of Justice analyzed DNA recovered from an earring Norma had been wearing the day she was taken.
”The thing was damaged, as if it had pulled or yanked out of her ear, but there was enough DNA evidence to get a sample,” Soccio said.
He said a profile confirmed the girl was a ”major” donor of DNA, while an unknown male was a ”minor” donor of DNA on the item.
Twenty-six men — out of 2.5 million — in the CODIS database were identified as potential donors, Soccio said. Through a process of intense evaluation, analysts determined Torres’ DNA was the closest match to the male sweat or saliva deposited on the earring, according to preliminary hearing testimony.
Soccio said the earring, Norma’s purse and a folder were located at the spot where the teen was snatched after an apparent struggle on July 15, 2010. She had been heading across a field on her way to meet her younger sister and friends at a house in the 27300 block of Cottonwood Avenue after attending a summer class at Valley View High School that morning.
Norma’s younger sister reported her missing around noon that day, triggering a massive citywide search that garnered national attention.
Five days later, the teen’s remains were discovered 2 1/2 miles away, amid a clump of trees in front of a house on sparsely populated Theodore Street. She was laying face-down and her shirt, bra and shoes were missing, though she was still wearing her underwear and jeans. There were no indications of a sexual assault.
Because Torres lived in close proximity to the high school and the route Norma had been using to walk home that summer, he was among many people sought for routine questioning but could not be located by investigators. He had left the area and moved to Long Beach two weeks after the abduction-murder, Soccio said.
Torres is being held without bail at the Robert Presley Jail in Riverside. His next scheduled court date is Aug. 5.