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Hearing to be held to determine Norma Lopez's killer's death penalty eligibility

RIVERSIDE, Calif.- - A 42-year-old welder who kidnapped and killed a 17-year-old Moreno Valley girl nearly nine years ago will be judicially assessed to determine if he is mentally deficient -- and therefore ineligible for the death penalty, a judge ruled today.
   
A five-woman, seven-man jury in Riverside last month recommended that Jesse Perez Torres receive capital punishment for the July 15, 2010, slaying of Norma Angelica Lopez.
   
During a pre-sentencing hearing Friday morning, Torres' attorneys presented motions arguing that the defendant is ``intellectually disabled'' and should receive an ``Atkins hearing'' to make a final determination.
   
The Atkins process, based on a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision, is intended to determine whether a defendant has a cognitive disability. If so, the impaired defendant cannot be sentenced to death because, per the Supreme Court, it would be a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which bars cruel and unusual punishment.


   
Riverside County Superior Court Judge Bernard Schwartz ruled the defense should have an opportunity to present it case for deficiency, but not before a jury. Schwartz will hear the matter in a bench trial this summer. He set a June 21 status conference at the Riverside Hall of Justice to discuss scheduling and witnesses with the prosecution and defense.


   
The District Attorney's Office opposed the Atkins hearing and will argue that Torres is of sound mind, and hence eligible for a death sentence.
   
If Schwartz rules there is evidence of mental impairment, the default sentence for the defendant will be life in prison without the possibility of parole.
   
Torres is being held without bail at the Robert Presley Jail in Riverside.
   
The same jury that recommended death for the defendant convicted him of first-degree murder and a special circumstance allegation of killing in the course of a kidnapping.
   
Deputy District Attorney Michael Kersse argued that Torres' ``brazen evilness'' and its impact on the victim's family, friends and community demanded that he receive capital punishment.
   
The prosecutor pointed to a September 2011 attack on a homeless prostitute, identified in court records only as Miss Rose, as a further example of the defendant's ``hatred of women'' and ``evil heart.''
   
The woman was taken at knifepoint by Torres outside a Long Beach liquor store, then driven to the defendant's home, where he bound and raped her, videotaping and photographing the injurious assault, according to Kersse, who emphasized the attack happened 14 months after Norma was kidnapped and killed.
   
``It tells you everything about what kind of man this is,'' Kersse said.
   
The prosecutor said jurors should consider the ``unimaginable situation'' that defined the final hour of Norma's life.
   
``He wanted her for his evil sexual gratification,'' Kersse said. 

``What mercy did he show her? What sympathy? None. Norma is dead and that monster is not. And that's just wrong.''
   
Attorney Darryl Exum told jurors during the penalty trial that his client was ``not normal'' and that for him to ``to die in prison, never seeing the light of freedom again,'' was punishment enough.
   


Trace DNA left all over Norma's clothing, purse and jewelry confirmed Torres was her killer.
   
The county's chief pathologist, Dr. Mark Fajardo, testified that he could only speculate as to exactly how the victim was killed, suggesting that ``strangulation or asphyxiation'' was possible.
   
Fajardo said the girl's remains were in a degraded state after being left in an olive tree grove along Theodore Street, at the eastern edge of Moreno Valley, amid sweltering heat. Her body was found on July 20, 2010.


   
The prosecution said Torres watched Norma from his then-residence at 13173 Creekside Way, observing whenever she left Valley View High School, where she was taking a morning biology class for the summer.
   
Every day that she'd left the campus for several weeks, she had been with her boyfriend. But on July 15, 2010, he was behind schedule, and she set off on her own, heading across a field adjacent to Cottonwood Avenue, where Torres followed her in his SUV, forcibly grabbing her and pulling her into the vehicle, sealing her fate, according to prosecutors.
 


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