SAN JOSE (CBS SF) –- After deliberating less than two days, a Santa Clara County Superior Court jury Tuesday found Antolin Garcia-Torres guilty of the first degree murder and kidnapping of Morgan Hill teenager Sierra LaMar who was abducted as she was walking to catch a bus to school in 2012.
The verdict means that the jury will now consider whether or not to condemn Garcia-Torres to death or life in prison without parole. Penalty phase of the trial was scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. May 16th.
The verdict in the jammed-packed courtroom triggered a wave of emotion among LaMar’s relatives including her parents, who wept as the verdict was read.
Emotions were also high among those who spent hundreds of hours searching for the teenager. Dozens crowded into a nearby room set up for the overflow crowd and cheered as the verdict was read.
Under heavy security, Garcia Torres sat stone-faced with his attorneys wearing lavender button-down shirt and blue tie.
It took just 12 hours of deliberations for this jury to reach a verdict. The decision was a huge victory for the prosecution tasked with proving murder even though LaMar’s body was never found.
“We felt very confident about the evidence we had,” said deputy District Attorney David Boyd outside the courthouse.
Prosecutors said they could not comment further because of the pending penalty phase of the trial.
“Nothing will take away the pain and sorrow we experience every day and we will continue to experience the rest of our lives,” said Sierra’s mother — Marlene LaMar — fighting tears as she spoke outside the courtroom. “We have been praying for this kind of ending — justice. We are grateful to the jurors coming up with the decision. “It gives us peace that this will not happened to another child.”
Her father, Steve, likewise called the decision bittersweet.
“We don’t have Sierra — that’s the bitter part,” he told reporters. “Justice has been served here for us today. Justice for Sierra. That gives us some form of relief. It will never take away our grief. That will be with us forever.”
Garcia-Torres, 26, had pleaded not guilty to the murder of 15-year-old Sierra, who has not been seen or heard from since March 16, 2012, and to the attempted kidnappings of three women in Safeway parking lots in 2009.
The jury also found Garcia-Torres guilty of the Safeway kidnappings.
He was arrested on May 21, 2012, two months after Sierra went missing and after investigators found his DNA on her jeans, which were recovered near where she went missing outside Morgan Hill.
Sierra’s DNA was also found on an interior backseat door handle and on the outside of a pair of work gloves in Garcia-Torres’ 1998 red Volkswagen Jetta.
Defense attorneys have alleged the discovery was due to cross-contamination during the evidence collection process, pointing to sloppy techniques by the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Crime Laboratory.
Garcia-Torres’ thumbprint was found on a 9-volt Duracell battery found in a stun gun that police found in the back of the car of one of the women who were nearly kidnapped and carjacked in 2009.
The defense has claimed that in Garcia-Torres’ job as a courtesy clerk at Safeway, he had legitimate reason to have handled a battery if the pack had been opened before the store resold it.
Security footage shows Garcia-Torres’ Jetta leaving his home at the Maple Leaf RV Park at 7 a.m., about 15 minutes before Sierra would have left her house to catch the bus to school.
Garcia-Torres has said that he might have turned onto Palm Avenue, where Sierra would have been walking to the bus stop 7 miles from his RV park, on his way to go fishing that morning.
But in his closing argument, defense attorney Al Lopez played an animation that he said proved that, based on the evidence, Garcia-Torres would have passed through the Palm Avenue area three minutes before Sierra would have left her house.
Garcia-Torres was also found guilty of three previous kidnapping attempts near a Morgan Hill Safeway supermarket which the prosecutor called “warmups” for LaMar.
Most of his family and supporters left the courthouse in silence except for one who briefly spoke to KPIX 5 reporter Anne Makovec on Facebook Live.
“It’s very sad on both families. Very unfortunate situation. That’s all I’ve got to say,” said the family member, who did not give her name.
Search teams are hoping Garcia-Torres will finally reveal what he did with Sierra’s body after his sentencing next week, but said they’ll keep searching no matter what.
“We’re not giving up until we bring Sierra home. That’s the bottom line,” said LaMar search leader Doug Tollis.
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