Official wants closure in Zion murders, no matter the cost
Jorge Avila-Torrez already faces the death penalty and five consecutive life sentences for violent crimes he committed in Virginia, so is his return to Lake County to stand trial for killing two little Zion girls in 2005 necessary?
Lake County State's Attorney Mike Nerheim said having Torrez stand trial is required "to bring closure to the case," but Torrez's defense attorney, Jed Stone, said he sees no point in spending limited resources on another trial.
That's part of the backdrop in a controversial case that stems from one of four wrongful convictions involving the previous administration in the state's attorney's office and threatens to reopen deep wounds that have just begun to heal.
Nerheim, who took over as state's attorney in December 2012, said his "first concern is to bring justice to the victims' families and to the community."
"If, in doing so, negative aspects of the past of this office are brought up, then so be it," he said. "My job is to seek justice, not to worry about (public relations)."
Nerheim calls the murders of Krystal Tobias, 9, and Laura Hobbs, 8, one of the most evil cases in Lake County.
"Put simply, this man is alleged to have murdered two little girls," Nerheim said. "The other option would be to simply dismiss this case in the name of convenience. I will not do that."
Torrez, 25, formerly of Zion, pleaded not guilty to 18 counts of first-degree murder in front of Judge Daniel Shanes last week. He is held without bail in the Lake County jail, with a trial tentatively set for Jan. 26.
Because Torrez was 16 at the time the girls were killed, he can be sentenced to a maximum of 100 years in prison if convicted.
Stone said he believes Torrez should have remained in Virginia, where he was sentenced to death for the murder of U.S. Navy Petty Officer Amanda Snell, 20, and five consecutive life sentences for stalking and attacking three other women.
The Zion murders were used as mitigating factors in Torrez's death penalty case, which should have provided closure for the families and the communities in Lake County, Stone said.
"The justice system is one of limited resources," he said. "When a guy is serving five life sentences and has been sentenced to death, I don't see the point of spending resources to have another trial."
Nerheim said there is no average cost estimate to determine how much could be spent to hold a trial. However, he said, the cost to the county is minimal because the prosecutors who will present the case against Torrez would be in the Lake County courthouse on other cases. The cost of hiring experts is budgeted annually, and not by individual cases, he added.
"I'm sure all defense attorneys believe we shouldn't be trying their cases either," Nerheim said of Stone's comments.
The Torrez case made national headlines when Laura Hobbs' father, Jerry Hobbs, confessed and was charged with the murders, then languished in jail after DNA evidence proved his innocence.
It was May 8, 2005, when the girls failed to return home after telling family members they were riding to a nearby park to play. They were found dead in the park the next morning by Jerry Hobbs and another family member, authorities said.
Police immediately zeroed in on Jerry Hobbs as the suspect. After 24 hours of interrogation, he confessed.
The case started to unravel for prosecutors in 2007 when defense attorneys recovered a DNA sample from Laura Hobbs that implicated someone besides Jerry Hobbs. Despite the evidence, Jerry Hobbs remained incarcerated because prosecutors under former Lake County State's Attorney Mike Waller claimed the DNA could have come from incidental contact because the girls were playing in a location where people routinely had sex.
Hobbs remained in Lake County jail for three more years, until the DNA produced a match with Torrez.
Torrez was serving in the Marines in Virginia when he was arrested and charged for attacking three women, including one who was raped, choked and left for dead. A DNA sample taken from Torrez was entered into a national database and matched samples found on Snell and Laura Hobbs, authorities said.
Jerry Hobbs was released from Lake County jail in 2010, then sued the county for wrongful imprisonment. He has since moved to Texas.
Torrez was sentenced to consecutive life terms in prison for the attacks on the women, and sentenced to death for Snell's murder.
Hobbs' case was one of four overturned in recent years in Lake County due to DNA evidence.
Stone said he intends to call on the former police officers and prosecutors who, at one time, believed Jerry Hobbs was guilty of killing the two girls.
"I'm sure the state will be in an uncomfortable position when they have to cross examine former police officers they stood by when they believed Mr. Hobbs was guilty," Stone said. "They were ready to send Mr. Hobbs to prison. This same state's attorney's office, the same prosecutors and the same police officers got it wrong once before, and I think that's important."