A federal jury in Alexandria on Thursday recommended the death penalty for a former Marine convicted of strangling a fellow service member at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall — agreeing with prosecutors that the 25-year-old was a sexual predator who began killing as a teenager and would continue to be a threat behind bars.
Jorge Torrez stared straight ahead as federal district Judge Liam O’Grady read the jury’s decision — a recommended sentence of death for the 2009 killing of Navy Petty Officer Amanda Jean Snell, 20. In the second row of the hushed courtroom, Snell’s grandmother fumbled with a tissue and whispered: “Thank you, Jesus. Thank you.”
“Thank god,” Jean Alexander, the grandmother, said as Torrez was led away by U.S. marshals. “That’s all I got to say.”
Jurors deliberated for about four hours Thursday before recommending Torrez’s execution, making him the first person since 2009 to be sentenced to death in the Eastern District of Virginia. Although a sentence must still be imposed by O’Grady — he scheduled a May 30 hearing to do so — that is considered largely a formality.
Robert Jenkins, one of Torrez’s attorneys, said his client’s actions during the penalty phase suggest that “he expected this result, and to some degree, welcomed it.” Torrez had ordered his attorneys not to mount a defense as prosecutors made the case for why he should be executed. On Thursday, Torrez shed his sport coat and tie for a green jail jumpsuit, despite O’Grady’s warning that the gesture would confirm to jurors that he was incarcerated.
“They are his choices to make,” Jenkins said afterward. “I just believe that Mr. Torrez didn’t want to spend the rest of his life in prison.”
Jenkins said he would appeal the case and try to persuade Torrez to explore other legal challenges before May 30.
Several jurors declined to comment as a row of reporters approached them outside the courthouse, and the few who did so declined to give their names. One woman said it was a “very difficult case.” The jury’s foreman said, “It all came out in open court.”
Indeed, jurors in court heard prosecutors describe several crimes Torrez was convicted of or alleged to have committed. In his closing argument Thursday, Assistant U.S. Attorney James Trump said that Torrez appropriately thought of himself as a “serial killer,” one who not only strangled Snell at the Arlington County base but also fatally stabbed two young girls in his home town of Zion, Ill., and raped or attacked three other women in Virginia.
“Jorge Torrez deserves to die,” Trump told jurors. “He is and will always be a danger to others, even in prison.”
Torrez was convicted of first-degree murder in Snell’s killing this month, and in their death-penalty deliberations, jurors also considered his convictions and multiple life sentences stemming from the random attacks on women in Virginia.
As a part of their death-penalty finding, they also decided that Torrez was responsible for the 2005 slayings of 8-year-old Laura Hobbs and her friend Krystal Tobias, 9. DNA linked him to that case and forced prosecutors to drop charges they had brought against Hobbs’s father. Torrez has yet to stand trial in Illinois.
Despite the heinous nature of the crimes, the outcome was far from certain. Jurors in the Eastern District of Virginia rarely impose the death penalty, even in the infrequent instances prosecutors ask for it. Most recently, prosecutors sought the death penalty for three Somali pirates convicted in the fatal shootings of four Americans on a yacht off the coast of Africa, but jurors recommended that they instead be sentenced to life terms. Jurors in the Eastern District also rejected the death penalty for al-Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, sentencing him, too, to life in prison for his role in the Sept. 11 attacks.
The last time a jury in the Eastern District recommended death was in 2009 for David Runyon, who was convicted in a murder-for-hire plot in Newport News. In Alexandria,jurors most recently recommended a death sentence in 2007 for Thomas Hager. He was convicted of fatally stabbing a 19-year-old single mother, whose infant daughter walked through the bloody crime scene.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, which tracks death-penalty cases nationwide, Virginia has six inmates on federal death row, and no federal inmate from the state has been put to death since 1927, which is as far back as the group’s database tracks.
Flashing pictures of the six people Torrez killed, raped or attacked in some other way, Trump argued Thursday that Torrez’s case stands out. He repeated Torrez’s own words, caught on tape by a jailhouse informant, that he felt no remorse for killing. Trump also showed jurors graphic pictures of the slain girls’ bodies.
“For this, all of this,” Trump said, “the law says Jorge Torrez has forfeited his right to live.”