No death row for Sierra LaMar killer

SAN JOSE — The 26-year-old man convicted of killing missing teen Sierra LaMar should spend the rest of his life in prison, without the possibility of parole, a jury recommended Monday, rejecting the option to sentence him to death.

Antolin Garcia-Torres will be sentenced in mid-September in Santa Clara County Superior Court by Judge Vanessa A. Zecher, who presided over the four-month trial.

Prosecutors had argued the jury should opt for death because it was the only punishment that could capture the horror of the 15-year-old’s final moments. And many in the packed courtroom anticipated that would be the verdict because the same jury — which had taken only two days to find Garcia-Torres guilty — also quickly reached a decision on the penalty in the same amount of time.

But without Sierra’s body, that argument proved difficult. The defense explicitly reminded the jury in closing arguments that other girls who have gone missing and were believed dead turned out instead to have been kidnapped and later were found alive, including California’s Jaycee Dugard.

When the clerk announced the verdict, Sierra’s father Steve LaMar,  bowed his head, but none of Sierra or Garcia-Torres’ relatives reacted audibly. Sierra’s family had supported District Attorney Jeff Rosen’s decision to pursue the death penalty.

Outside the Hall of Justice, Steve Lamar thanked jurors but acknowledged feeling let down.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed,” he said. “He’ll be able to breathe, to eat, to see his family. We don’t have that. We’ll grieve the rest of our lives.”

Last month, the jury convictedt Garcia-Torres of abducting and killing 15-year-old Sierra  as she made her way to her school bus stop in a semi-rural area north of Morgan Hill early one morning in 2012.

The panel also convicted him of the 2009 attempted kidnappings of three other women from grocery store parking lots, which the prosecution portrayed as a “training ground” for Sierra’s abduction and murder three years later.

 During the two-week penalty phase of the trial, prosecutor David Boyd argued the death penalty was the only punishment that could capture the horror of the 15-year-old’s final moments. Garcia-Torres doesn’t deserve the jury’s sympathy, compassion or mercy, Boyd contended, because he showed none toward Sierra.

But defense attorney Brian Matthews argued that justice didn’t mean an eye for an eye. Garcia-Torres endured a horrific childhood, he said, yet still managed to be a good father and supportive of his mother, girlfriend and sisters. He also said there is no definitive proof of her death.

District Attorney Jeff Rosen made no apologies Monday outside the Hall of Justice for seeking the death penalty, despite the extra resources it took, including having an extra public defender assigned to the case.

“There are some crimes that are unspeakably evil and some individuals so unspeakably evil that the only appropriate punishment is death,” Rosen said.

Even if the jury had opted for death, Garcia-Torres wasn’t likely to be executed for ages, if ever. In the past four decades since 1976, only 13 people have been executed in California, the most recent in 2006.

The last time a Santa Clara County jury sentenced anyone to die was six years ago, when Melvin Forte was given the death penalty for the 1981 kidnapping, rape and murder of German tourist Ines Sailer in San Jose. Of the 747 killers now on death row in San Quentin prison, just 26 — 3 percent — were sent there by Santa Clara County juries.

Sierra’s family supported District Attorney Jeff Rosen’s pursuit of the death penalty in the case.

Sierra’s disappearance in March 2012 drew widespread interest and touched off every parent’s worst worries. Beyond the visceral fear the case evokes of strangers abducting children, there is also the continuing mystery surrounding what happened to Sierra. Her body has not been found, despite a yearslong effort by more than 750 volunteers from around the Bay Area.

Without her body, prosecutors Boyd and Dana Veazey faced an extra hurdle in getting a murder conviction. They had to prove the circumstantial case without an autopsy, a murder weapon or witness statements.

Adding to the prosecution’s challenge, Rosen took the rare step in a “no-body” trial of seeking the death penalty, his first since he assumed office in 2011.

Relatively few “no body” cases go to trial, but prosecutors nationwide have won nearly 90 percent of the 480 that have gone to trial since 1819, according to former federal prosecutor Tad DiBiase, who maintains a database. Only 33, or about 7 percent, have resulted in a death penalty sentence, he said. No figures are available for how often it was sought.

“Death penalty sentences in no body cases are rare,” DiBiase said. “When you don’t have a body, the jury is still a little reluctant to take that extra step.”

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By Tracey Kaplan

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