Defense alleges DNA contamination in Sierra LaMar case

Opening statements wrapped up in a San Jose courtroom Tuesday in the trial of Antolin Garcia-Torres, the man charged with the murder of Sierra LaMar in 2012 and the attempted kidnappings of three women in March 2009.

Garcia-Torres, now 25, was arrested two months after 15-year-old Sierra did not show up for school in Morgan Hill on the morning of March 16, 2012.

Sierra has not been seen or heard from since, and her Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook accounts, which she used frequently up until that morning, have gone dark.

Prosecutor David Boyd, whose opening statement began Monday afternoon, continued his statement this morning by rehashing the kidnapping attempts, which took place in the parking lots of two Morgan Hill Safeway stores, including the Tennant Avenue location where Garcia-Torres worked as a courtesy clerk.

A stun gun that was collected as evidence in one of the attempts contained a nine-volt Duracell battery marked by Garcia-Torres’ left thumbprint, Boyd said.

Records connected to Garcia-Torres’ sister’s Safeway Club Card, which Boyd said the defendant used regularly at that time, list a purchase of the same nine-volt Duracell batteries hours before the kidnapping attempt.

In his opening statement, defense attorney Al Lopez told jurors that Garcia-Torres’ then-manager at Safeway would testify at a later date that those batteries were too heavy for their packaging and often broke it open.

Garcia-Torres could have left a thumbprint on one of them if he had picked up an open pack of batteries at the register, which, Lopez said, he could have had reason to do as a courtesy clerk.

Lopez went on to attack the arguments made by prosecutors regarding physical evidence collected from Garcia-Torres’ distinctive 1998 Volkswagen Jetta and Sierra’s backpack.

The black and gray polyester fibers found on Sierra’s clothing that Boyd described as indistinguishable from those found on the after-market floor mats in the Jetta are generic and can be found on any number of products, Lopez argued.

The tiny reflective glass beads from the road found on Sierra’s clothing were not found in Garcia-Torres’ Jetta, Lopez said.

Prosecutors have said that Garcia-Torres, described as an avid outdoorsman, had the outdoor knowledge to hide Sierra’s body in any number of remote locations.

Lopez said:

“If she’s taken somewhere in the wilderness, where did the glass beads come from?”

Safeway records show that Garcia-Torres purchased a jug of bleach and a turkey baster three days before Sierra disappeared, items that Boyd suggested the defendant bought to break down DNA evidence of a sexual assault.

Lopez pulled out a turkey baster and, using coffee filters and a rubber band, showed the jury how it could be used to manufacture concentrated marijuana hash oil.

As for the bleach, Lopez said, there was “nothing sinister about buying a gallon of bleach to get your socks white.” Perhaps most significantly, Lopez argued that DNA evidence had been cross-contaminated during the collection process.

Sierra’s hair, for example, was not found on the rope from the trunk of Garcia-Torres’ Jetta until months after being collected.

Unlike fingerprints, DNA can be transferred, and some of the evidence presented by the prosecution was inconclusive.

Lopez said:

“The complete picture is this is not gold-standard DNA. It’s background DNA. … What they’re presenting to you is not reliable. … It doesn’t prove who, how or when.”

A neatly coiffed and clean-shaven Garcia-Torres smirked and laughed quietly to himself when Boyd played a video of his April 2012 interview with investigators from the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, in which a sergeant explains the spread of DNA evidence with a reference to a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup commercial.

In that interview, the sergeant asks Garcia-Torres how his DNA may have been found on Sierra’s clothing, which was found covered in dirt stains and a strong odor of human urine three days after her disappearance.

“I like masturbating, so, ha, that’s it,” a 21-year-old Garcia-Torres says in the video, explaining that he kept tissue or toilet paper in his car for this purpose and that his DNA would have been carried on the tissue wherever he disposed of it outside.

Boyd pointed out that prior to this, neither sergeant raises the subject of anything sexual or suggests that ejaculate was found on Sierra’s jeans.

Lopez warned jurors about “shaming evidence” provided to distract and create bias against the defendant without proving the defendant’s culpability in crimes as charged:

“You’re not going to hear any evidence that she was killed. … Absolutely none.”