Warning: Some details of this case are graphic in nature and may be uncomfortable for some readers. Discretion is advised.
BENTON COUNTY, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — The third capital murder trial for Mauricio Torres began with opening statements in Benton County circuit court on the morning of February 9.
Torres has already been convicted twice for the abuse and killing of his six-year-old son, Isaiah Torres, during a weekend camping trip in 2015. The first was overturned on a sentencing technicality, and the second was declared a mistrial when Torres’ stepson jumped out of the witness stand and attempted to attack him during sentencing.
Judge Brad Karren began the proceedings in his courtroom shortly after 8:30 a.m. by noting that one juror had been excused and replaced with an alternate. The selection of the jury panel concluded on February 8.
The jury was then sworn in and prosecutor Nathan Smith began his opening statement at approximately 8:42 a.m.
“This is the tragic story of Isaiah Torres,” he began, before walking the jury through a painstaking timeline chronicling the events that led to that six-year-old boy’s killing in March, 2015. He stated that the child’s death was a direct result of the “abuse, torture and murder that was inflicted on him” by his father, the defendant, Mauricio Torres.
“These things are difficult to comprehend and even harder to accept. They are ugly and they are grotesque.”
State of Arkansas vs. Mauricio Torres, Nathan Smith’s opening statement, February 9
Regarding the fateful family camping trip in 2015, Smith noted that it was how “Isiah’s long history of abuse reached its end.” The defendant stirred uncomfortably in his seat across the courtroom as the prosecutor described that day in detail.
Smith’s opening included a graphic and gruesome description of the act of sodomy that Torres allegedly performed on his son with a stick, and how this perforated the child’s rectum, leading to infection, sepsis and death. He also explained that the defendant’s wife, Cathy Torres, has already pleaded guilty to her own charges.
“The evidence will show you that Cathy was not Isaiah’s primary abuser,” he told the jury. Torres shook his head as he listened to this description of the events.
The prosecutor continued by stating that the state would call two teachers as witnesses–two women that made reports about the signs of abuse and changes in behavior they witnessed in the boy in the days leading up to his death.
“No help ever came for Isaiah,” Smith added. He explained to the jury that they would listen to a 911 call from Cathy Torres and hear testimony from an EMT, an emergency room doctor and members of law enforcement that investigated the case and interviewed the defendant.
He said that a medical examiner would also confirm “significant evidence of abuse” and would note primary and contributing causes of death: “a rough object” that punctured his rectum, and “chronic child abuse” that “lead inevitably to a homicidal act,” respectively.
Smith went on to state that Torres ultimately admitted his guilt in post-arrest interviews, including confessing to using a stick on his son. The prosecution also voiced its intent to call the victim’s twin sister, now 15 years old, to the stand.
As he did during voir dire, Smith also warned the jury about graphic photographs that would be admitted into evidence.
“It’s hard to look at, but it’s the reality,” he told the jurors. “It’s the reality of his life and death.” The state’s thorough opening statement concluded at approximately 9:00 a.m.
Moment later, defense attorney Bill James began his opening statement by offering a brief suggestion to the jurors.
“Deep breath,” he implored. “It’s over.”
He went on to remind the panel that they must not let their emotions take over during the trial. He added that the defendant wasn’t certain at the time that anything he did would kill his son.
James then said that Cathy Torres’ conduct was what caused the boy’s death. Regarding the defendant’s confession, James explained that his client “thought it was a smart move under the circumstances.” He also acknowledged that English is the defendant’s second language and that he can become flustered and speak quickly and less clearly at times.
He described Mauricio Torres as a man that came to this country searching for respect, and that he viewed his wife as a pathway to achieving that. The defendant looked away and became emotional as his attorney described his client’s life to this point.
“Is Mauricio Torres responsible for a capital murder?” he then asked. He compared Isaiah’s fatal injury to a stomach ache and told the jury that they needed to “compartmentalize this evidence.” He added that any prior abuse the child suffered did not cause his death, but that sepsis did.
“She plead guilty to save herself,” James told the jury. He then offered a series of graphics to the jury, making no attempt to deny that Isaiah Torres was abused and died of sepsis.
His statement then pivoted back to Cathy Torres as he described her as “controlling” of both her husband and their children. He explained that the defendant “worked long hours” and was “rarely home.”
On the day of Isaiah Torres’ murder, James said the family’s Saturday “started out with a fun walk and volunteering,” followed by the trip to Missouri in the family’s camper RV.
“Mauricio didn’t know Isaiah had been injured,” he said. “He thought he had a stomach ache. Everybody did.”
The defense attorney added that “attempts were made to save Isaiah,” and he noted that the defendant said to call 911, gave the boy vitamins, and instructed him to shower that night.
“Mauricio did not know why Isaiah died,” James stated. He also said his client didn’t understand why he was ever accused of rape in the case. James also told the jury that there were “changing stories” about what happened after the boy’s death.
“Keep your eye on the bouncing ball,” he suggested. “Whatever he’s guilty of, battery aside, it’s not capital murder,” he said in conclusion.
The state’s first witness was called just after 9:30 a.m.
The prosecution began by calling a pair of witnesses that were both Isaiah’s teachers during the year he was killed. Perry Heffernan and Hannah Paul offered similar testimony, as each described Isaiah’s bruises and cuts that they saw at school, followed thereafter by negative changes in his behavior, including stealing and sneaking food during Kindergarten class.
Heffernan described the boy as initially “excited to learn” before he “started getting more combative” later in the year.
“His demeanor changed,” she told the jury. She also detailed the signs of abuse that she saw and said that the injuries “seemed like they were never healing.” Four photos that she took to document the abuse were admitted into evidence.
Hannah Paul now lives abroad and appeared via live video. She said that when she first taught Isaiah, he was a “normal, happy kid.”
“As the year progressed he definitely became a different person,” she explained. She detailed mood changes, Isaiah’s emotional withdrawal and lack of participation and his tendency to steal and hide food. She also described physical signs of abuse.
Paul also took pictures of his injuries and described an encounter when Isaiah was extremely emotional and sought her out for attention.
“I was very concerned about abuse happening in the home,” she said after describing a “huge bruise” she discovered on Isaiah’s back.
The defense’s cross-examination of the pair of witnesses focused on trying to find any inconsistencies in their testimony today compared to during the previous trials. For example, today one of the witnesses mentioned Isaiah eating in the rest room, but she had not done so earlier. They were also questioned about whether other students stole lunches at school as well.
The morning’s third witness, a former Bella Vista dispatcher, was accompanied by a recording of Cathy Torres’ 911 call. The jury heard the boy’s mother describing how her son wasn’t breathing. She added that he previously said his stomach was hurting him.
The jury listened as the dispatcher and a paramedic walked her through the CPR process over the phone as other emergency personnel were en route to assist.
“Wake up, buddy,” Cathy Torres said. She could also be heard referring to her son by name in efforts to get him to begin breathing as she gave him chest compressions.
As the recording played, Mauricio Torres began to cry at the defense table. He opened and closed his right hand into a fist as the jury listened to the call.
Next to take the stand was a Bella Vista paramedic that responded to the 911 call. Captain John Cottingham has served in the medical field for 23 years, with 16 of those spent as a paramedic.
He testified that he was the second responder on the scene and he assisted a firefighter that arrived first. He also brought in equipment including a heart monitor and a defibrillator.
He noted that Isaiah was jaundiced and had “various wounds” including bruises and a black eye. He was succinct in describing his interaction with the defendant.
“I didn’t get much from him,” said Cottingham. The paramedic felt that the scene was “suspicious,” so he reported it to police. He then accompanied an ambulance to a nearby emergency room.
The prosecution introduced four photos of the victim into evidence during Cottingham’s testimony, including shots of the child with a ventilator in a hospital bed and with a defibrillator on his back. Mauricio Torres turned away, refusing to look at these.
A brief cross-examination revealed that it was a total of 36 minutes from the 911 call to Isaiah’s arrival at the ER. The defense also noted that there was no blood evident on the hospital bed’s sheets.
Proceeding in a linear fashion, Nathan Smith next called an emergency room physician to testify. Dr. Franklin Mayhew told the jury that he has been an ER doctor since 1985, and he was working at the Bella Vista’s “freestanding ER” with limited departments when the victim arrived there in 2015.
He immediately noted that a case of cardiac arrest in a child is unusual, and he explained that it is difficult for a child of that age to have his heart stop, while it was usually easy to get it started again.
“Something was terribly not normal,” he said. He added that he worked on the boy for less than 30 minutes before signs indicated that his heart wasn’t going to start again.
Later, a nurse checking Isaiah’s core temperature detected blood in his rectum, which the doctor said was “not normal.”
Mayhew was tasked with telling Mauricio and Cathy Torres that their child had died, and he described them as “remarkably without emotion” when they were informed. Conversely, he said that the boy’s sisters were “crying their eyes out.”
Another brief cross-exam had the doctor state that at the time, Isaiah’s death was attributed to “unexplained circumstances.” Mayhew added that he didn’t know at the time that sepsis was the cause of death.
Judge Karren called for a lunch recess just before noon. The jury was instructed to return at 1:30 p.m., and afternoon testimony began with a new prosecution witness at 1:39 p.m.
Detective Ed Williams was next. His law enforcement career began in Oklahoma in 1996 and he moved to Bella Vista in 1999. He was a detective there on this case in 2015.
Williams was called to the ER and more photos from that scene were admitted into evidence, including close-up shots of a rectal thermometer with a “red substance” on it inside a hospital trash can. The detective later interviewed Torres, who waived his Miranda rights.
The jury watched extensive video of that interview, which was a wide-ranging affair over two hours in length, in addition to certain segments being skipped due to a lack of evidentiary value. The jurors were also provided with a transcript of the interview to serve as demonstrative assistance, but that wasn’t actually admitted into evidence.
Torres’ demeanor varied noticeably during the interview. He began by noting that his son was simply suffering from a stomach ache. The defendant looked away from the video in the courtroom, staring at the ceiling as the jurors watched him describe Isaiah’s death as his “worst nightmare.”
“I feel like I failed,” Torres said on the video. His mood became more defensive when questioned about the assorted injuries present on his son’s body, and he offered up quick explanations for several of them, including a fall, an incident when the boy was sick, and sores that he “picked at.”
“Did you ask my wife about this?” he countered. The detective confirmed that they had.
“Don’t you think that’s a lot of injuries for a little boy that’s six?” Williams asked.
Torres eventually ran out of answers and explanations for the indicators of abuse.
“I do the best that I can for them,” he stated. He also explained that he underwent weight loss surgery because of his children. “I want to live to see them grow up,” he said.
The judge ordered a brief recess after the jury had watched the video for about an hour. When the jurors returned, they agreed to proceed past 5 p.m. if necessary.
In the second half of the video, Torres detailed how he had always done what his wife wanted, though he later admitted to occasionally verbally abusing her.
“I said some things,” he noted.
He then began to harp on his wish that he had called 911 sooner, often repeating his belief that his son simply had a stomach ache. The detective was not convinced by this.
“Someone abused this child,” he said on the video. “And I’m going to find out. I just want the truth.”
Torres then began to offer new possible reasons for some of the various scratches and wounds on his son’s body, including the family’s cat and dog. When asked about physical punishment, he admitted to spanking his children with his hand, but denied doing more than that.
He then noted that Isaiah was polite, sweet and gentle.
“He’s like me,” the defendant added.
The interview moved on to discussing the possibility of Cathy Torres cutting a deal, with Mauricio noting that he thought law enforcement was “a business” that is also “corrupt.”
The defense’s cross-examination had the witness note that Torres’ interview on the video was conducted voluntarily, and that police didn’t have enough evidence to hold him yet then.
After a brief afternoon break, the day’s final witness took the stand at 4:53 p.m. Captain Tim Cook is a decorated officer that has been with the Bella Vista PD for 24 years. He held that same title when he was involved in the 2015 investigation.
In addition to the Captain’s testimony, the prosecution submitted over 20 photos into evidence as they questioned him. Smith walked through each one with Cook, who identified most of them as shots taken during an investigation of the Torres family home.
“There was a lot of blood,” Cook said in reference to multiple pictures that appeared to show it on the walls of the residence. An Arkansas Crime Lab report that confirmed that the blood was Isaiah’s was also submitted as evidence. Other photographs included buckets and a bottle of bleach found in the home’s master bathroom.
State’s exhibit #39 was an autopsy report stating that the death was a homicide based on “chronic child abuse” and Isaiah’s rectal injury. Cook explained that Mauricio and Cathy Torres were both arrested for battery and capital murder after that report.
Cook interviewed the defendant three times in April, 2015, and the state submitted video files on flash drives accompanied by forms that Torres signed before each that granted the police the right to do so. The jury is set to return on February 10, weather permitting, and it is expected that the prosecution will continue with Cook by showing those interviews to the jury.