Antolin Garcia Torres, 22 of Morgan Hill, again declined to enter a plea to charges that he killed missing teenager Sierra LaMar, and the judge in the case explained to frustrated family members and search volunteers that the repeated delays are part of a delicate “balancing act” to ensure both the victim and defendant receive justice.
Garcia Torres appeared for his scheduled plea hearing Thursday at the Hall of Justice in San Jose. He wore a brown suit, white button-down shirt and tie, and his hair was combed straight back and shorter than in previous appearances. In previous appearances, Garcia Torres wore his Santa Clara County Jail jumpsuit to court.
Garcia Torres is charged with murder, with a special circumstance of kidnapping in relation to the disappearance of Sierra, who has been missing from her mother’s north Morgan Hill home since March 16, 2012.
A prosecutor from the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office and Garcia Torres’ attorney agreed on a new date of July 23 for a rescheduled plea hearing.
The cause of Thursday’s delay remains the discovery or evidence sharing process, which both attorneys said is unfinished. Deputy DA Brian Welch, filling in for Deputy DA David Boyd on the Garcia Torres case, said his office is still working with the Sheriff’s Office to acquire some outstanding evidence, which prosecutors will then turn over to the defense.
“The parties are talking formally about items that may be missing,” Welch said.
Garcia Torres’ attorney, Traci Owens of the Santa Clara County Alternate Defender’s Office, added she is still seeking some unidentified evidence items from the DA’s office and Sheriff’s office.
Owens added that gaining all available evidence is necessary to “protect Antolin Garcia Torres’ constitutional rights.”
The defense and DA mutually requested the continuance of the plea hearing.
Aware that family, friends and other supporters of Sierra’s are becoming impatient with the repeated delays in the case against Garcia Torres, Superior Court Judge Sharon Chatman explained that the defendant has a “constitutional right to be prepared” to answer the charges against him.
“We have to make sure Mr. Garcia Torres’ constitutional rights and due process rights are maintained,” Chatman said at the end of Thursday’s hearing. “We don’t want to have to have a redo, and (we want) to take the time to do things right.”
Chatman did not blame anyone for the lengthy discovery process, which has been ongoing since Garcia Torres was arrested May 22, 2012. She said the DA’s and Sheriff’s offices have been “doing their best” to share the evidence “as quickly as they can.”
Investigators think Sierra was kidnapped while walking to her school bus stop near the intersection of Palm and Dougherty avenues in north Morgan Hill the morning of March 16, 2012. She was 15 and a sophomore at Sobrato High School at the time of her disappearance.
Sierra’s remains have not been found, but authorities think she is dead based on her lack of any known communication with anybody since she disappeared.
Volunteers and Sierra’s family continue to search for her remains or any sign of her whereabouts every Saturday in Morgan Hill. The volunteer searches started last year, weeks after Sierra’s disappearance.
About half a dozen of those volunteers who have been searching for Sierra for more than a year attended Thursday’s hearing. One of those volunteers, Robert Beasley of Morgan Hill, said they are “disappointed” in yet another delay in the case against Sierra’s suspected killer.
“We want to see this thing go forward,” Beasley said.
Mike Nino of Sunnyvale, another volunteer searcher, said he is hopeful the case will proceed at a faster pace as soon as Garcia Torres enters a plea, which could be at his next scheduled appearance next month.
Nino and Beasley have been participating in the volunteer searches for Sierra since April 2012.
“We want to bring closure to the family, and let them know we’re there for them,” Nino said. “We’ll keep searching until we find her and everything is solved.”
Garcia Torres also faces charges of attempted carjacking that are unrelated to Sierra’s disappearance. Those charges stem from three attacks in 2009 in the parking lots of two Safeway stores in Morgan Hill, in which authorities say he followed three different female victims to their parked cars at night, entered their vehicles when then unlocked the doors and tried to assault them.