SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) – Despite no crime scene or dead body, a jury convicted a 26-year-old man of murdering Sierra LaMar, a 15-year-old who went missing in 2012.
In a case that grabbed national headlines because of the unusual nature of seeking a murder conviction without having recovered the victim’s body, a Santa Clara County jury ultimately took less than two days to hand down the guilty verdict on Tuesday morning.
Antolin Garcia-Torres was convicted of the first-degree murder and kidnapping of LaMar, who was last seen by her mother as she headed for the bus stop in Morgan Hill on the morning March 16, 2012. Garcia-Torres exhibited no emotion as the verdict was read.
Family and friends of the victim gasped, wept, then applauded following the announcement.
Afterwards, LaMar’s parents Steve and Marlene expressed gratitude to the jury but said the hurt caused by the disappearance of their daughter will never mend.
“Nothing will take away the pain and the sorrow we experience every day and will continue to experience for the rest of our lives,” Marlene LaMar said outside the courthouse. “We have been praying for the chapter to have this type of ending – justice. We are grateful to the jurors coming up for the right decision.”
Without a body or a murder weapon, prosecutors David Boyd and Dana Veazey built their case on three key pieces of DNA evidence. The discovery of Garcia-Torres’ DNA on jeans in a bag of Sierra LaMar’s clothing that was found dumped near her home a couple of weeks after her disappearance is what led to the initial arrest.
The two other major pieces of evidence included a strand of LaMar’s DNA found on a piece of rope in the trunk of Garcia-Torres’ car and more DNA samples that were scattered about the vehicle.
Prosecutors also pointed to the testimony of three women, all of whom said Garcia-Torres attempted to kidnap them from a Safeway parking lot in Morgan Hill, with the incidents dating back to 2009.
The jury also convicted Garcia-Torres of those crimes, which the prosecution characterized as a prelude to the kidnapping and murder of LaMar.
Boyd and Veazey also noted Garcia-Torres had a five-hour window with no alibi on the day of the murder. Garcia-Torres said he’d been out fishing alone.
He later told police he never met LaMar.
The defense attempted to cast doubt on the validity of the presented evidence, claiming the DNA samples were collected, handled and processed inappropriately by police and crime scene analysts and were susceptible to cross-contamination.
Garcia-Torres’ lawyers also noted the three women who claimed Garcia-Torres attempted to kidnap them failed to pick him out of a lineup.
Many legal analysts became interested in the case as a test to see if DNA evidence held such sway that it could be used to convict someone of first-degree murder even in the absence of a body or a murder weapon.
The defense attempted to use the lack of a body to its advantage, saying LaMar could have run away of her own volition, while Garcia-Torres stood trial for killing someone who is still alive.
Garcia-Torres’ lawyers said questions about LaMar’s sexuality, combined with a devoutly Christian mother and a recent move from Fremont to Morgan Hill, could have prompted her to run away.
Ultimately, the jury did not buy that line of defense, deliberating for less than two days to cap off a three-month trial that captivated the community of Morgan Hill and beyond.
“We need to respect the jury,” Boyd said, adding he was “very confident about the evidence we had.”
Boyd will begin prosecuting the penalty phase next week, and expressed reluctance about discussing the case before that phase of the trial is completed.
Because Garcia-Torres was convicted with “special circumstances,” he is eligible for the death penalty. The same jury that convicted him of murder will now decide whether he will spend the rest of his life in prison or be executed.
Authorities launched a full-scale search shortly after LaMar went missing. She never was found and the search was suspended in 2015.
“We will still search until we find something,” a tearful Steve LaMar said outside the courtroom on Tuesday.