Judge denies convicted Sierra LaMar killer's request for judge to be removed from case

SAN JOSE (BCN) A San Francisco Superior Court judge has denied a motion from Antolin Garcia-Torres, the convicted killer of Morgan Hill teen Sierra LaMar, to remove the judge presiding over the case and a request for a new trial because of what Garcia-Torres alleges to be a conflict from the past, the Santa Clara Superior Court announced today.

"Garcia-Torres has not met the heavy burden required to establish the appearance of bias," Judge Jeffrey S. Ross wrote in the analysis part of the decision.

Ross determined that a conflict didn't exist based on the two points that Garcia-Torres' tried to make in the motion: that the judge presiding over the murder case, Vanessa Zecher, was a lawyer for the Lamar case's lead investigator, Sgt. Herman Leon, in a murder case almost 30 years 
ago and that someone aware of the previous client relationship with Leon and Zecher might doubt that Zecher could be impartial in the murder case.

Zecher was the deputy county counsel for Leon and other Santa Clara County Sheriff's deputies in a civil suit 27 years ago that alleged Leon played a role in the death of Jeffrey Leonti, a mentally ill inmate, when he worked at the county's Main Jail as a guard.

Ross stated that Garcia-Torres' first claim, the past lawyer-client relationship between Leon and Zecher, as written in the motion's decision, is irrelevant because Leon is not a "party" in the LaMar 
murder case and Zecher "served as a lawyer for a public agency and was not in private practice."

Garcia-Torres' second claim, that someone who might know about the conflict might not think Zecher could be impartial in the case, according to Ross, didn't hold enough weight because Leon's role in the events leading up to Leonti's death was "very limited."

Ross said a sheriff's report on the incident said Leon's role in restraining Leonti on the night he died was just to hold his legs.

"He did not subdue Leonti. He did not make the decision to conduct the strip search. He did not make the decision to administer the Taser, nor did he administer it to Leonti," Ross wrote in the decision.

As for Zecher's inability to recall representing Leon, Ross included Zecher's statement that she submitted under perjury.

"Although I do recall, generally, the Leonti case, I had no recollection that Sgt. Leon was a county employee named in that case prior to the time that defense counsel showed me the pleadings from Leonti v. County of Santa Clara case which named Herman Leon as a defendant," Zecher's 
statement reads in the decision. "I do not have any specific recollection of any factual claim against him. Rather, what I generally recall is the plaintiffs' claims in the Leonti case were primarily focused on another named defendant."

Leon was the "designated investigator for the people" for the LaMar murder investigation, according to the original motion.

The motion said that Zecher never disclosed the representation of Leon before the case, and had the disclosure been made, the defense would have requested that Zecher disqualify herself from the case.

The motion also claimed that Zecher was "required to develop a duty of loyalty to him and his interest including protecting him from allegations of misconduct in the killing of Jeffrey Leonti."

Garcia-Torres was found guilty earlier this year of murdering LaMar, although her body was never found. She was last seen on March 16, 2012 in Morgan Hill.

The sentencing for Garcia-Torres is now scheduled for Dec. 12 at the Santa Clara County Hall of Justice in San Jose.

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