Man Dodges Death Penalty in Murder of Girl Missing Since 2012

SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) – A jury in California recommended the killer of a 15-year-old girl – whose body has never been found – should spend the rest of his life in jail without the possibility of parole.

Antolin Garcia-Torres is slated to be sentenced in Santa Clara Superior Court next month, following the jury’s recommendation on Monday. The jury’s decision surprised experts who thought they may opt for the death penalty.

The prosecution argued for capital punishment in the case, saying it was the only appropriate punishment given the anguish 15-year-old Sierra LaMar must have faced in her last moments. But the argument proved unpersuasive, particularly as Lamar’s body has never been recovered.

Defense attorneys have long maintained their client’s innocence, saying LaMar is still alive. They pointed to cases such as Jaycee Dugard, who was presumed dead but later found to have been held in captivity for years.

Sierra’s father Steve LaMar expressed disappointment with the jury recommendation outside the courtroom on Monday.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed,” he said. “(Garcia-Torres) will be able to breathe, to eat, to see his family. We’ll grieve the rest of our lives.”

Sierra LaMar was last seen by her mother leaving for the bus stop in a neighborhood outside Morgan Hill, California, in 2012.

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 in 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 Sierra’s disappearance. Garcia-Torres said he’d been out fishing alone, and later told police he’d 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.

Capital punishment is technically legal in California, but executions are rare and the method used – lethal injection – has been entangled in litigation for years. The state last executed a death row inmate in 2006.

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