Defense may pursue new trial for Sierra LaMar murderer

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By Bay City News Service

As jurors prepare to deliberate next week on whether to impose the death penalty or life without parole for the convicted murderer of missing teen Sierra LaMar, his defense attorneys may pursue a new trial, they said outside of the Hall of Justice in San Jose this morning.

Al Lopez, defense attorney for 26-year-old Antolin Garcia-Torres, confirmed that a possible future trial was the reason his team had opted not to inform the jury that the lead sheriff's investigator on the case was recently found to have given false testimony in a 2009 murder trial.

Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Vanessa Zecher ruled Wednesday to allow the defense to present evidence of impeachment of Santa Clara County sheriff's Sgt. Herman Leon, but the defense ultimately opted not to call Leon to the stand.

"Strategy is fluid," defense attorney Brian Matthews said.

The judge in that Superior Court case, Sharon Chatman, ruled May 10 to grant 26-year-old David Pilipina and 29-year-old Eddie Rivera a retrial after they were convicted last year of the stabbing murder of Kristina Harris-Perkins and the attempted murder of two others at a light-rail station.

In that trial, Leon testified that from the time he became a detective in 2007 to the date of the trial in 2015, between 30 and 40 percent

of stabbing defendants investigated by the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office had worn gloves.

But a review of 104 cases from those years in the district attorney's office database showed that Pilipina's case was one of only two in which the defendant had worn gloves, according to Chatman's ruling.

Prosecutors in the case argued that the district attorney's records formed a limited sample since they did not include unsolved cases that Leon may have worked on, but declined to supplement the reports with others.

Leon waited at the courthouse this morning in case the defense called him among their final witnesses in the penalty phase of the trial. The witnesses ultimately included Garcia-Torres' former boss, San Jose arborist
Brian McGovern, and the defendant's ex-girlfriend's mother, Morgan Hill elementary school secretary Danelle Atwell.

McGovern said that as his sole employee, the defendant had provided ground support while McGovern pruned trees for the six months leading up to Garcia-Torres' arrest in May 2012.

"He definitely had my life in his hands on multiple occasions," McGovern said, testifying that had known Garcia-Torres to be trustworthy, respectful and eager to learn.

When prosecutor David Boyd asked McGovern if he was aware that Garcia-Torres had been fired from Safeway for stealing, the arborist admitted that that knowledge "definitely wouldn't have been beneficial" to his initial impression of Garcia-Torres.

Photos of the defendant smiling and goofing around with his ex-girlfriend Francine Sarmiento and one of their two young daughters, the younger of whom was born after Garcia-Torres' arrest, were shown on the
courtroom television screen as Sarmiento's mother nervously testified about his character.

Atwell recalled the care and compassion a teenage Garcia-Torres had showed Sarmiento when she gave birth to their first daughter and the maturity with which the young couple raised the girl.

"I don't see that he could even do something like that," Atwell said, referring to the murder of 15-year-old Sierra in 2012 and the attempted kidnappings of three women in 2009. "He's a kind person. He cares about other
people. He was a wonderful father with the girls."

Boyd asked Atwell whether she had followed the case closely through the news or by attending court hearings, which she admitted she hadn't.

"Fair to say you don't know the whole man, do you?" Boyd asked.

"What I do know, I believe he's a fine individual," Atwell said. "I think all children need to have their father and their mother available."

Attorneys were set to hold a hearing outside the presence of the jury this afternoon to determine the deliberation instructions that will be read to jurors on Tuesday, after closing arguments in the penalty phase are made.