Southern California

Jury Recommends Death for Man Convicted in Slaying of 17-Year-Old Norma Lopez

A jury recommended Wednesday that a man who abducted and killed a 17-year-old Moreno Valley girl nearly nine years ago should be sentenced to death.

Jesse Perez Torres, 42, was convicted last week of first-degree murder and a special circumstance allegation of killing in the course of a kidnapping for the July 15, 2010, death of Norma Angelica Lopez.

A prosecutor said the man, a welder at the time, kidnapped the girl for his "evil sexual gratification'' and then choked the life out of her nearly nine years ago. The prosectuor said Torres should die for the crime, while the Torres' attorney asked jurors to steer clear of seeking "vengeance'' and show mercy by imprisoning the killer for life.

"What fear do you think Norma Lopez felt when this man took her?'' Riverside County Deputy District Attorney Michael Kersse said in his closing statement in the penalty trial of Jesse Perez Torres. "What terror was flowing through her body? This was a 34-year-old man. She must've known what he wanted.

"He had been waiting, watching and lusting for her,'' the prosecutor said. "Think of the breath being squeezed from Norma's body as he held his cold hands around her throat. That pain of losing her vital breath. Did she try to call out for her father or her mother?''

Torres, 42, was convicted last week of first-degree murder and a special circumstance allegation of killing in the course of a kidnapping for the July 15, 2010, death of Norma Angelica Lopez. The same five-woman, seven-man jury recommended a death sentence for the defendant.

Kersse argued that Torres' "brazen evilness'' and its impact on the victim's family, friends and community demanded that he receive capital punishment.

The prosecutor pointed to a September 2011 attack on a homeless prostitute, identified in court records only as Miss Rose, as a further example of the defendant's "hatred of women'' and "evil heart.''

She was taken at knifepoint by Torres outside a Long Beach liquor store, then driven to the defendant's home, where he bound and raped her, videotaping and photographing the injurious assault, according to Kersse, who emphasized that the attack happened 14 months after Norma was kidnapped and killed.

"It tells you everything about what kind of man this is,'' Kersse said.

The prosecutor said jurors should consider the "unimaginable situation'' that defined the final hour of the teen's life.

"He wanted her for his evil sexual gratification,'' Kersse said.

"What mercy did he show her? What sympathy? None. The impact of this man's actions spread far and wide. Norma is dead and that monster is not. And that's just wrong.''

Defense attorney Darryl Exum told jurors in his summation that they had ``the strength to stop the death penalty in this case.''

"Does Jesse deserve mercy, or do you just kill him?'' Exum asked. "To die in prison, never seeing the light of freedom again, is a serious penalty.''

Exum acknowledged that nothing he could say would "eclipse'' the unfathomable pain with which the Lopez family lives, and there was no doubt his client showed the girl "no mercy.''

"But justice is not vengeance,'' he said. "It means being impartial, unattached at the end. Jesse is afforded your consideration. The punishment must fit the person.''

The attorney appealed to jurors to remember that "death means death.''

"You never have to impose the death penalty,'' Exum said. "The quality of mercy is yours to decide. Don't kill Jesse.''

The evidentiary portion of Torres' six-week trial concluded last week, during which prosecutors reminded jurors that the defendant had "left his DNA all over (Norma's) pants, purse, earring.''

No DNA matches were initially found in the state's Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, in the months immediately following Norma's slaying. But according to the prosecution, that changed by September 2011.

The defendant had been required to submit DNA samples after a domestic violence incident. According to Deputy District Attorney Kevin Beecham, testing on the DNA strands collected from the teen's garments and possessions revealed that the chance of an errant forensic profile was 1 in 5.87 million.

"It's Mr. Torres' DNA,'' Beecham said.

The county's chief pathologist, Dr. Mark Fajardo, testified that he could only speculate as to exactly how the victim was killed, suggesting that "strangulation or asphyxiation'' was possible.

Fajardo said that the girl's remains were in a degraded state after being left in an olive tree grove along Theodore Street, at the eastern edge of Moreno Valley, amid sweltering heat. She was found by a landscaper in the early afternoon of July 20, 2010.

The prosecution said 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.

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, heading across a field "where no one could hear her scream,'' Beecham said.

Torres tailed her in his Nissan Xterra, driving into the field, where he overpowered the victim, whose broken earring and other articles left behind indicated that she'd tried to resist him.

Prosecutors do not believe the defendant succeeded in sexually assaulting Norma. It is unclear exactly where she was killed.

Copyright CNS - City News Service
Contact Us