Sentencing in Sierra LaMar case halted
Defense moves to disqualify judge for alleged conflict of interest in murder trial
SAN JOSE » The sentencing hearing for the man convicted of killing missing teen Sierra LaMar was abruptly postponed Thursday after defense attorneys moved to disqualify the judge for failing to disclose a potentially significant conflict of interest that they claim threatens to upend the guilty verdict in the capital trial.
The defense learned Wednesday after working with Judge Vanessa A. Zecher for more than a year that she had once represented the prosecution’s lead investigator, Sheriff’s Sgt. Herman Leon, whose integrity has become a major issue in the Sierra trial and in another recent murder case.
More than 25 years ago, Leon was sued for wrongful death in a case that involved allegations of excessive force against a mentally ill jail inmate, who died in 1989 after being held down and repeatedly Tased. At the time, the judge worked for the County Counsel’s Office, which represents Santa Clara County employees, including jail personnel.
County officials could not immediately say how much they settled the case for, but court documents in the case say the county made a $650,000 settlement in 1991.
According to multiple sources, the judge said she did not recall representing Leon until defense attorneys brought up the issue as grounds for disqualifying her
from sentencing him Friday and for a new trial.
But in a declaration filed with the court Thursday, defense attorney Al Lopez characterized Zecher’s role in the case as “substantial.” The defense team learned of her role after digging through civil court records involving Leon. If the team had known of her role at the outset of Garcia-Torres’ trial, Lopez said the defense would have exercised its right to disqualify her without cause and tried both the guilt and the penalty phases of the trial before a different judge.
The unexpected move came as Zecher was poised to decide Thursday whether to grant Antolin Garcia-Torres a new trial based on the defense’s claim that Leon had given false testimony in the other recent murder trial and had also planted a strand of Sierra’s hair on a rope found in the trunk of Garcia-Torres’ car.
Thursday’s hearing was supposed to be followed by the actual sentencing Friday morning of Antolin Garcia-Torres, more than five years after Sierra was killed. Her parents looked baffled and then downcast as the judge crisply announced that the defense had filed a “170.1,” the penal code number for disqualifying a judge for cause, and then left the stand. Sierra’s parents also quickly left after conferring privately with prosecutor David Boyd and could not be reached immediately for comment.
Noting the case was still pending, the District Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the unexpected development, including whether they knew about the judge’s role in defending Leon decades ago. Sources familiar with the case said they had no idea.
Garcia-Torres, 26, was convicted in May of abducting and killing 15-yearold Sierra as she made her way to her school bus stop in a semi-rural area north of Morgan Hill early one morning in 2012. He was also found guilty of the 2009 attempted kidnappings of three other women from grocery store parking lots, which the prosecution portrayed as a “training ground” for Sierra’s abduction and murder three years later.
He faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole after the jury in June rejected sending him to death row.
The day after Garcia-Torres was convicted in May, the judge in the courtroom next door, citing “false statistical evidence’’ provided by Sgt. Herman Leon, took the extremely rare step of setting aside the 2016 murder conviction of two men in a tragic 2009 stabbing case and ordering a new trial. The District Attorney’s Office has appealed.
The judge in that case, Sharon Chatman, did not address whether Leon deliberately misled the jury or was merely mistaken. Prosecutors in Sierra’s case have argued in court documents that Leon merely gave an inaccurate estimate when he testified that suspects in “30 to 40 percent’’ of the stabbing cases the sheriff’s office handled during a nine-year period since he’d been a detective wore gloves to prevent injury in stabbing cases.
But defense attorneys after that trial reviewed 103 records about stabbing cases filed by the District Attorney’s Office during the relevant time period and discovered that their case was the only one in which it was alleged that the assailant wore gloves. In a brief filed prior to Thursday’s hearing, prosecutors argued that Leon was referring to all cases, including those that were reported but never prosecuted. The county claimed it could not provide the defense attorneys with records of reported stabbings.
Prior to Chatman’s ruling, Leon had been credited in Sierra’s case with linking Garcia-Torres to the three unsolved attempted kidnappings in Morgan Hill. The jury convicted GarciaTorres of those crimes as well after his fingerprint was found on the battery of a stun gun the assailant dropped during one of the attacks.
Antolin Garcia-Torres was convicted in the 2012 murder, but his sentencing was postponed Thursday after defense attorneys moved to disqualify Judge Vanessa A. Zecher.