SAN JOSE (CBS SF) — A judge in Santa Clara County Superior Court on Friday ordered the release of thousands of pages of transcripts from proceedings by a county grand jury that indicted a man in the 2012 murder-kidnapping of Morgan Hill teen Sierra LaMar.
Judge Griffin Bonini ruled that the transcripts of the secret grand jury that charged Antolin Garcia-Torres of abducting and murdering LaMar must be released to the public by July 11 to give the defendant’s lawyer time to appeal.
The judge was not swayed by arguments from Garcia-Torres’ San Jose attorney Brian Matthews that the transcripts should remain sealed because releasing them would prejudice potential jurors against the defendant and not allow him a fair trial.
Bonini said that Garcia-Torres’ defense did not meet the “reasonable likelihood” standard that jurors would be prejudiced from news coverage of grand jury transcripts, as held by the First District Court of Appeals in California in 2007 case, Alvarez vs. the Superior Court of San Mateo.
In the Alvarez case, brought by news media outlets seeking the release of grand jury records, the appeals court decided that a defendant seeking to seal grand jury transcripts must establish a reasonable likelihood that a pool of jurors would be prejudiced against the defendant due to media coverage.
Bonini said he agreed that public release of the Garcia-Torres grand jury transcripts, numbering in the thousands of pages, would increase news coverage but that the defendant’s side did not provide enough proof to meet the Alvarez standard in Santa Clara County.
Garcia-Torres, 23, in court today dressed in a beige suit, sat impassively during the hearing.
He was indicted by the grand jury on Feb. 11 on charges of murdering and kidnapping 15-year-old LaMar, who was last seen on her way to a catch a bus to a high school in Morgan Hill on March 16, 2012.
The panel also indicted Garcia-Torres on kidnapping and carjacking charges in attacks on three women in supermarket parking lots in Morgan Hill in 2009.
Garcia-Torres pled not guilty to the charges on Feb. 13. He was arrested in connection with the LaMar case on May 21, 2012.
LaMar’s body has never been found. The sheriff’s office has stated that her DNA was detected inside Garcia-Torres’ car, a Volkswagen Jetta.
On May 19, District Attorney Jeff Rosen announced his office would seek the death penalty for Garcia-Torres.
LaMar’s disappearance has attracted widespread publicity and a dedicated group of volunteers is still conducting regular searches for her body in the Morgan Hill area.
The case to unseal records of the closed-door grand jury proceedings into Garcia-Torres was brought by the San Jose Mercury News.
The newspaper maintained that the defendant’s lawyers did not prove that potential jurors in Santa Clara County would be prejudiced against the defendant based on news coverage of testimony and evidence revealed in the transcripts.
Garcia-Torres’ attorneys used an expert in pre-trial publicity to review stories in the Mercury News about LaMar’s disappearance, including some 80 articles since 2012, that they maintained had already hurt their client’s ability to receive a fair trial.
But the Mercury News said the articles were not enough to prejudge jurors in a jurisdiction as large as Santa Clara County, the most populous county in the Bay Area with 2 million people of diverse ethnic backgrounds.
The newspaper was also a party in the Alvarez case where it had asked for the release of grand jury transcripts in the indictment of a defendant charged with the murder of a police officer in East Palo Alto in 2006.
During today’s hearing, Deputy District Attorney David Boyd, the prosecutor in the Garcia-Torres case, informed the judge that details from the transcripts, such as DNA evidence, were “fundamentally different than what is in the public sphere” and reported by the news media.
Boyd said that given his experience with screening jurors in the county, the release of the transcripts and resultant news stories about them “will make selecting the jury longer than the trial itself” and could impair the “people’s right to a speedy trial.”
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