The Washington Post

Attorneys say toxins to blame

- BY JUSTIN JOUVENAL justin.jouvenal@washpost.com

A Fairfax County judge appointed experts Thursday to evaluate whether the man accused in the high-profile killing of Muslim teen Nabra Hassanen is intellectu­ally disabled and therefore barred from facing the death penalty.

Defense attorneys sought the appointmen­t of a neuropsych­ologist and neurotoxic­ologist in the capital murder case because they believe Darwin Martinez Torres, 23, of Sterling may have been exposed to neurotoxin­s while growing up near a major gold mine in El Salvador.

“We hope to present evidence as to why this defendant’s brain functions differentl­y,” attorney Joseph T. Flood told the judge. “If someone has a tainted brain that has been exposed to neurotoxic chemicals, are they less culpable than someone else?”

Flood did not identify the mine but told a judge it had released arsenic and mercury into the groundwate­r and soil surroundin­g it. Flood said investigat­ions had uncovered evidence that Torres had possibly been exposed to toxins by drinking polluted water and eating food grown in chemical-laced soil.

Flood said the neuropsych­ologist appointed by the judge had examined Torres and found he suffered from impairment­s consistent with exposure to neurotoxin­s. The issues include cognitive limitation­s, poor memory and impaired judgment.

He hoped the neurotoxic­ologist could establish a cause-and-effect link between the gold mine’s chemicals and Torres’s impairment. The Supreme Court has ruled that it is unconstitu­tional to execute people with significan­t mental deficits.

Casey Lingan, Fairfax County chief deputy commonweal­th’s attorney, objected to the appointmen­t of the neurotoxic­ologist, saying it would be impossible to know whether Torres had consumed tainted food and water 20-plus years ago. He called the move “neuro witchcraft.”

“There is no scientific link that can be establishe­d at this point. . . . It’s all speculativ­e,” Lingan told the judge.

Torres is facing counts including capital murder and rape in the abduction of Hassanen, 17, as she and a group of teens walked back to their Sterling mosque in June following a predawn meal, a common ritual to mark the holy month of Ramadan.

Police said Torres got into an argument with one of the teens before chasing them in his car and then running after them with a baseball bat. He is alleged to have caught up to Hassanen and hit her on the back of the head.

Police said he then took Hassanen to a location near his apartment complex. Prosecutor­s said Thursday that Hassanen was raped and killed in an area of vegetation adjacent to a pond, where they said Torres dumped her body.

Hassanen’s killing stirred outrage and fears that she was targeted because of her faith. Vigils were held in cities around the country; police said they have turned up no evidence that she was killed because she was Muslim.

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