BENTONVILLE -- A Bella Vista man convicted and sentenced to death for killing his 6-year-old son will receive a new trial.
The Arkansas Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision, Thursday reversed Mauricio Alejandro Torres' conviction and sent the case back to Benton County Circuit Court.
Circuit Judge Brad Karren on Nov. 14, 2016, sentenced Torres to death on the jury's recommendation. Torres was convicted of capital murder and first-degree battery at the end of a five-day trial.
The jury found Torres killed Maurice "Isaiah" Torres, who died March 30, 2015, at a Bella Vista hospital. A medical examiner testified the boy's death was caused by a bacterial infection, the result of being sodomized with a stick. The medical examiner also said the autopsy found multiple healing and healed wounds and severe injuries on the child's head and other parts of his body.
Prosecutors told the jury Torres, an occupational therapist, had medical knowledge and was aware "shoving that stick up the rectum of a 6-year-old child" could kill him.
Bill James, one of Torres' attorneys, told jurors in his closing statements Torres never intended to kill his son and the stick was used for a punishment and not for sexual purposes.
The abuse with the stick occurred in Missouri, but Isaiah died in Benton County.
Prosecutors charged Torres with capital murder, with the underlying felony being either rape or child-abuse murder. Capital murder typically involves special circumstances, such as committing a murder while committing another serious felony like rape or kidnapping.
The first of nine points of Torres' appeal concerned the two special circumstances.
Torres argued the judge should have ruled the state failed to prove its case concerning the felony murder before he sent it to the jury.
The state Supreme Court agreed, saying prosecutors must prove an element of the rape occurred in Arkansas. Since it happened in Missouri, rape cannot be the aggravating factor behind an alternative one, felony murder.
Torres also argued in his appeal that it's unclear which of the special circumstances the jury used to find him guilty.
The court again agreed, ruling because the jury completed a general verdict form, it can't be determined which of the two Torres was convicted under. So a new trial was ordered.
The court didn't take up any of Torres' remaining appeal arguments.
Benton County Prosecuting Attorney Nathan Smith said he expects the Arkansas attorney general's office to request a review hearing to get the court to change the ruling.
"The result of this decision invalidates the will of 12 Benton County jurors who convicted the defendant and sentenced him to death," he said.
Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said in a statement that her office is reviewing the ruling.
Jeff Rosenzweig, another of Torres' attorneys, said they are gratified by the court's ruling, and he believes the court made the right decision with the issue concerning felony murder.
Smith said Thursday afternoon that he will retry the case if necessary and will seek the death penalty again.
"It was difficult to tell the surviving victims that they will have to relive a chapter of their lives that should be forever closed," he said.
Smith described Isaiah's siblings as the surviving victims. They testified during the trial that Mauricio Torres abused them.
Mauricio Torres' wife, Cathy, pleaded guilty to capital murder and was given a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Supreme Court Justice Josephine Linker Hart wrote in a concurring opinion that the siblings' testimony shouldn't have been allowed at trial because Torres wasn't charged with abuse and the statute of limitations had expired. In fact, she wrote, the Crimes Against Children Division of the Arkansas State Police investigated abuse allegations against Torres and no charges resulted.
Presenting the alleged abuse as an aggravating factor at sentencing violated Torres' due process, Hart wrote.
Justice Shawn Womack wrote the dissenting opinion, arguing the majority's decision is flawed because it misinterprets Arkansas' extraterritorial jurisdiction law.
"Arkansas has broadened the territorial scope of its jurisdiction to permit prosecution of crimes committed in different jurisdictions if the alleged conduct or some consequence of it occurs within its borders," Womack wrote.
The consequence of Isaiah's abuse in Missouri was his death in Arkansas, so the conditions of the law were met, the opinion says.
The state Supreme Court's decision doesn't mean Torres will be a free man. He still must serve the 20-year prison sentence he received on the battery conviction. He will be removed from death row, Smith said.
Torres' case isn't the only Benton County death-penalty sentence reversed in recent years.
Erickson Dimas-Martinez was found guilty of capital murder and aggravated robbery in 2010 for shooting and killing 17-year-old Derrick Jefferson. Dimas-Martinez was sentenced to death, but the state Supreme Court granted him a new trial in 2011 based on the fact that a juror disobeyed the judge's orders by continuing to tweet during the trial and another juror was sleeping, but not removed from the panel.
Dimas-Martinez ultimately pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
Metro on 04/19/2019
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