With rebuttal testimony taking longer than expected, closing statements were postponed Thursday in the trial of a man accused of abducting and killing a 17-year-old Moreno Valley girl more than eight years ago.
Jesse Perez Torres, 42, could face the death penalty if convicted of first-degree murder and a special circumstance allegation of killing in the course of a kidnapping for the July 2010 death of Norma Angelica Lopez.
The defense called its last witness Wednesday, two weeks after the prosecution concluded its presentation of evidence in the monthlong trial. However, prosecutors had five rebuttal witnesses testifying about forensic evidence, prompting Riverside County Superior Court Judge Bernard Schwartz to drop his original plan to have the two sides make final arguments to jurors before Friday, when trial proceedings generally are not held in his courtroom at the Riverside Hall of Justice.
Schwartz told the prosecution and defense to be prepared for closings Monday morning. If Lopez is found guilty, his trial will proceed to the penalty phase. The prosecution has argued that trace DNA fragments gleaned from Norma's broken earring and garments proved that Torres was her killer.
No DNA matches were initially found in the state's Combined DNA Index System, better known as CODIS. But Deputy District Attorney Michael Kersse said that changed by September 2011, when potential matches were identified out of the 1.8 million individuals whose biological identities were then in the database.
The prosecutor alleged that Torres was the best match, culminating in his detention by sheriff's detectives, who found him at a Long Beach property owned by his mother. The defendant had been required to provide DNA samples after a domestic violence incident in early 2011. At the outset of the trial, defense attorney John Dorr repudiated the prosecution's contention that the DNA presented a substantive link between his client and the crime.
"There were 24 potential DNA matches," Dorr told the jury. "You will hear nothing about the other 23, who they are, or their criminal backgrounds."
The attorney criticized the handling of the forensic clues collected from the victim's earring, suggesting it had been contaminated by evidence technicians. Riverside County's chief pathologist, Dr. Mark Fajardo, testified that he could only speculate as to exactly how Norma was killed, though he eventually formed an opinion that it was homicidal violence.
"There are a number of ways to kill someone without leaving a mark," the witness testified. "Strangulation or asphyxiation is possible."
Fajardo said that the girl's remains were in a degraded state after being left under a tree along Theodore Street, at the eastern edge of Moreno Valley, amid sweltering heat. She was found in the early afternoon of July 20, 2010, by a man on a tractor, doing landscaping. Photos displayed by the prosecution showed the teen head down, nude from the waist up, wearing blue jeans but no shoes.
Kersse told jurors that Torres could easily have observed Norma from his then-residence at 13173 Creekside Way, watching her whenever she left Valley View High School, where she was taking a morning biology class for the summer.
Local news from across Southern California
Every day that she'd left the campus for several weeks, she had been with her boyfriend.
But on July 15, 2010, he was behind schedule, and she set off on her own. She headed south on Creekside, east to Quail Creek Drive, then south again on Mill Creek Road before crossing an open field toward Cottonwood Avenue, where her older sister, Sonia Lopez, and friends gathered almost daily that summer.
Kersse played a security surveillance videotape from a house looking down on Creekside, and the recording captured the last images of Norma alive, walking the route. The tape also showed, moments later, a green SUV cruising slowly in the direction that she was walking, shortly after 10 a.m. The vehicle re- appeared less than five minutes later, speeding away from the area.
According to the prosecution, Torres owned a green Nissan Xterra at the time. The victim's school binder, purse and broken earring were found about noon strewn on the ground in the field near Cottonwood. Five days later, her remains were discovered in the olive tree grove.
Torres denied any involvement in the kidnap-murder, telling detectives shortly after his arrest that he was exercising when the teen was snatched. He's being held without bail at the Robert Presley Jail in Riverside.