ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — Defense lawyers at a federal death-penalty trial sought to discredit their own client Monday, telling a jury during closing arguments that the defendant's jailhouse confession to the 2009 murder of a Navy sailor was a boastful lie.
Prosecutors contend that the defendant, ex-Marine Jorge Avila Torrez, killed Petty Officer Amanda Snell as part of a series of violent stalking attacks against young women. They also pointed the jury to evidence showing that Torrez's DNA was found in semen left behind in Snell's quarters at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, where she lived in the same barracks as Torrez.
Snell "had the pure dumb luck of living eight doors down from this man, this predator, this coward," prosecutor James Trump said during closing arguments, pointing his finger at the defendant.
If the jury convicts Torrez of first-degree murder, the trial will move to a sentencing phase where prosecutors plan to seek the death penalty.
Torrez is already serving a life sentence for the abduction of three women in Arlington in 2010, raping one repeatedly and leaving her for dead.
It was his 2010 arrest in the Arlington abductions that led authorities to suspect Torrez in Snell's death. Until that time, authorities had not even been certain that Snell had been deliberately killed. The examiner who conducted her autopsy declined to rule her death a homicide, even though her body found had been found stuffed in a wall locker with a pillowcase over her head.
DNA entered into a database after his 2010 arrest also linked Torrez to the 2005 killings of 8-year-old Laura Hobbs and 9-year-old Krystal Tobias in his hometown of Zion, Ill. Laura's father, Jerry Hobbs, was originally charged in that case and spent five years in custody until the DNA evidence pointed to Torrez. Hobbs says he was coerced into a false confession. Illinois prosecutors are still waiting to put Torrez on trial.
During testimony last week, the jury heard recordings in which Torrez admitted killing Snell to an inmate who was working as an informant. Defense attorney Robert Jenkins said the confession couldn't be trusted, citing inmates' tendency to lie about their crimes to impress each other. He also said the informant — a fraudster named Osama El-Atari who bamboozled banks into lending him more than $50 million — was able to sweet-talk Torrez into telling him an entertaining but untruthful story.
Jenkins argued the DNA in Snell's quarters may be evidence that Torrez lied about never being in her room, but is not evidence of murder.
"What happened in that room? No matter how the government has tried to convince you, we just don't know," Jenkins said.
Prosecutors acknowledged that some of the details Torrez gave to El-Atari were either inaccurate or inconsistent — Torrez at various times described choking her or strangling her with a laptop cord. But they said Torrez was trying to cover his tracks and ensure that El-Atari would not be a credible witness if he were ever called to testify. And they said there is no evidence that Torrez and Snell had any kind of consensual relationship that would explain the semen in Snell's quarters.