SAN JOSE (CBS SF) — A Superior Court judge placed limits Monday on how defense attorneys can use evidence of convicted killer Antolin Garcia-Torres’ troubled childhood during the penalty phase of his first-degree murder trial.
Judge Vanessa Zecher said since the defense plans to continue to argue that Garcia-Torres is innocent of the murder of Morgan Hill teen Sierra LaMar, they cannot present evidence of his troubled upbringing as an explanation for why he kidnapped and murdered her.
Attorneys will begin opening statements Tuesday morning as the months-long trial enters the penalty phase in which jurors are set to impose either the death penalty or life without parole.
However, Zecher told defense attorneys they would be allowed to introduce elements of Garcia-Torres’ childhood, including domestic violence, to elicit sympathy for the 26-year-old father of two.
Garcia-Torres’ 55-year-old father, Genaro Garcia Fernandez, is serving a life sentence at Salinas Valley State Prison for the sexual abuse of a female relative from age 5 to 14. He was convicted in 2012.
Prosecutor David Boyd argued that because Garcia-Torres, who was a child during the years his father molested their relative, was not aware of the “monstrous acts” as they were taking place, informing the jury of them would be prejudicial.
Defense attorney Brian Matthews countered that Garcia-Torres’ father’s lack of supervision, his mother’s long work hours and the presence of domestic violence in a “very small home” added up to a “horrific story,” whether or not every element directly affected Garcia-Torres.
“They need to know that before sentencing a man to die,” Matthews said.
Berkeley-based psychologist Gretchen White, who has been retained by the defense, has interviewed Garcia-Torres’ ex-girlfriend, his parents, the relative who his father sexually abused and dozens of other relatives and connections in her efforts to compile a “psychosocial history” of Garcia-Torres’ life.
In a brief report submitted in January, White wrote that poverty, neglect, loss, violence and incest had caused Garcia-Torres to experience “significant, chronic stress and trauma” throughout childhood and adolescence, leaving him with “ineffective coping skills and unresolved grief.”
White also met with Garcia-Torres for an hour last year, but Matthews said that this “meet and greet” did not include any kind of assessment or diagnosis and would not affect her testimony before the jury.
“I would be interested to hear her say under oath that she isn’t considering his statements,” Boyd said.
Last Wednesday, prosecutors motioned to have their own psychologist, Kris Mohandie, assess Garcia-Torres to provide an opinion on White’s findings.
Matthews said that the request put the defense in a “very difficult position” because performing a psychological assessment on a man who has just been convicted of murder is likely to yield unreliable results.
Zecher ordered the defense to call White in for a courtroom discussion on Wednesday morning, when the jury is not scheduled to be present, before she is allowed to testify.