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) – One day after a Benton County circuit court jury found Bella Vista’s Mauricio Torres unanimously guilty of the murder of his six-year-old son in 2015, the parties returned to the courthouse to begin the sentencing phase of the case in which the state is seeking the death penalty.
Torres had already been convicted twice for the abuse and killing of his 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.
On February 16, the jury deliberated for approximately four hours before returning with guilty verdicts on charges of battery in the first degree and capital murder after evidence and witness testimony indicated that the child had been a victim of chronic child abuse for over a year before he died from sepsis after Torres inserted a stick inside him and perforated the boy’s rectum.
Under Arkansas law, the jury is now tasked with choosing one of two possible outcomes in this case: Torres can be sentenced to death, or he can be sent to prison for life without the possibility of parole. Judge Brad Karren provided sentencing instructions and informed the jury that additional evidence regarding sentencing would be presented by the state and the defense. He noted that they may consider this evidence and everything from the trial in order to make their decision.
“You have already delivered a just conviction,” prosecutor Nathan Smith told them to begin the hearing. He stated that everything the state would present today was in connection with demonstrating aggravating circumstances in this case.
He then reminded them of three thresholds the state must meet in order for a death sentence to be delivered. These include at least one aggravating circumstance as unanimously agreed upon by the jury, that aggravating circumstances must outweigh any mitigating ones and that those aggravating circumstances justify a sentence of death beyond a reasonable doubt.
He added that the death sentence should be imposed in the event of a murder committed in an “especially cruel or depraved manner” in which mental anguish, serious physical abuse or torture are committed against an “especially vulnerable” victim.
Smith would proceed to address those concerns by calling three witnesses to testify about prior abuse that they suffered at the hands of Torres years ago. He also explained to the jury that prior violent felonies committed by Mauricio were relevant even without criminal convictions.
“I’m going to ask you to do justice one more time,” he said to the jurors.
Defense attorney Jeff Rosenzweig also presented an opening statement.
“This is going to be a very hard decision for you to make,” he said directly to the jury. “We respect your decision.”
He added that the sentencing would involve “the power of life and death,” and stated that this was a “solemn responsibility” for them. He also explained that Torres will die in prison no matter what, and now it was only a question of whether his lifespan would be “artificially shortened.”
He also referred to co-counsel Bill James’ description of Torres as a “messed-up unit” and told the jury that they would learn today “how Mauricio Torres got that way,” admitting that his client suffers from “significant issues.” He then noted that the upcoming prosecution witnesses “never told anyone about any of this until after their father had been arrested for these charges in 2015.”
He alleged that the upcoming testimony would be “problematic,” and he noted that one of the witnesses had been coached on what to say. He added that the jury would also hear from Torres’ father and an uncle before moving on to what he described as the “single most salient and unusual” aspect of Torres’ life—the fact that he never met his mother, and that there was actually “some dispute” over his parentage.
The defense attorney then regaled the jury with a story about Torres’ upbringing in El Salvador, where he was raised as a young boy by his 18-year-old father, grandfather and his uncles. Rosenzweig explained that as an infant, Mauricio was presented to his father, Edgar, with a simple statement.
“He’s yours, I’m gone,” the mother reportedly said. While the identity of that woman is known, the attorney then said that there was unconfirmed speculation that Mauricio was actually the product of an incestuous relationship. Rosenzweig described Torres’ father and uncles as “fitness buffs” that would exercise for hours, including the infamous “up-downs” referenced so often during the trial.
The attorney described that as “something that echoed into the future.” He continued by saying that Torres “managed to get himself out of there” and he explained that the man “cut off all contact with his family” for approximately 20 years after leaving until attorneys in this case “showed up at Edgar Torres’ doorstep in California.”
Rosenzweig told the jury that Torres’ harsh upbringing was something “he couldn’t psychologically outrun.”
“The child is the father of the man,” he observed. He asked the jury to exercise their own “personal, moral judgment” and noted that prison is a place where Torres “can help other inmates” with his skills.
The state’s first witness in this sentencing hearing was Bailey Perrin, 23, who lives in Arkansas and works as a pharmacy technician. She explained that she is Cathy Torres’ biological daughter and that she stopped living with her mother at the age of four.
She told the jury that Mauricio Torres touched her in a sexual manner at the age of four when the family was living in Jonesboro. He also forced her to perform sexual acts on him.
“I ended up doing it because that’s what he told me to do,” she explained, before describing multiple other sexual assaults she suffered from him. She said that she was afraid to tell anyone what had happened to her.
“How strong are these memories?” prosecutor Nathan Smith asked.
“They haunt me,” she replied.
Witness number two was Maurice Torres, 27, who lives in Jonesboro and works in equipment quality control. He is married with two daughters and explained that his parents are Leah Smith and Mauricio Torres.
He lived with them until the age of seven or eight, in both California and Arkansas. When asked if he had suffered physical abuse at the hands of his father, his response was short.
“I did,” he stated, before adding that there was “a lot of hitting, a lot of kicking” and instances of throwing the children around and yanking and dragging them by their ears. Smith asked if circumstances changed after the family moved to Arkansas.
“The same, really,” the witness said. “More often when we moved.” He said that one time when he couldn’t find his shoes fast enough, his father kicked him so hard that the boy vomited and was forced to eat it.
The line of discussion moved to sexual abuse, and the witness became emotional as he explained that this happened “many times.” At the defense table, Torres could be seen wincing as his son described this.
Maurice said that he lived in fear of the consequences if he tried to refuse doing what his father wanted. He fought through tears on the stand to describe the physical scars that he still bears from his father’s abuse.
A brief cross-examination reminded the jury that this childhood abuse was not reported until well after it happened. A redirect by the prosecution elicited even more graphic details, including the fact that Torres had forced the witness and his sister to abuse and assault each other.
Maurice’s older sister, Ericka Torres, 29, was the state’s third and final witness of the morning. Her testimony covered much of the same territory as that of her brother, who she affectionately called “Gizmo.” She now lives in Tampa and works as a veterinary technician supervisor for an animal emergency hospital.
She corroborated the testimony about the family’s time in California and Arkansas, noting that it included many instances of physical abuse. She told the jury that beatings from Torres with a sandal, extension cord or belt were a “pretty normal thing.”
“I’d definitely have marks,” she said. “Bruises.” The prosecuting attorney asked how often this happened.
“It was a regular thing,” she answered. “Daily.”
She had to take a deep breath before describing a specific time when her brother got into trouble for sleeping in her room.
“He was scared,” she explained. “Would have nightmares.” When their father found out, he beat his son with a coat hanger and forced him to perform “up-downs.” Maurice received further beatings when he grew tired from doing that.
Ericka became tearful and more emotional when she explained that she was also forced by Torres to be violent with her brother. Tears rolled down her face as she described the resulting marks and scars that the abuse left.
Smith then asked if she was afraid of what might happen if she didn’t comply with her father’s demands.
“Yes,” she replied. “Yes, absolutely.”
The testimony took an even darker turn as she described the sexual assaults her father inflicted on her, and how she never told anyone due to her fear. When asked how often that had happened, her answer was short.
“I didn’t try to keep count,” she said after a deep breath. After a short cross-examination, the state rested.
Torres shook his head vigorously at the defense table and extended his hand with a palm facing forward in the universal gesture for “stop” as his daughter spoke.
The court took a short morning recess before the defense called its first witness, Mauricio Torres’ father.
Edgar Torres, 72, said that he was born in El Salvador as the defense submitted several family photos into evidence. He explained that he had to leave there when civil war eventually reached the family’s neighborhood. Mauricio remained behind with his grandfather and some uncles for about a year before joining his father in California.
Torres began to cry at the defense table again as he listened to his father describe having the infant left with him. The father admitted that he did have Mauricio engage in exercise, and was asked if he felt that he had overdone it in that regard.
“For a long time, I think no,” he answered. “But now I think yes. Maybe I was wrong.”
Rosenzweig then raised the possibility of incest regarding Mauricio’s real mother.
“That was a rumor,” the witness stated. On the matter of corporal punishment, he said “I don’t really like to do the belt,” but admitted that he did it to his son once or twice.
The prosecution had no questions for the witness, so the next one was called to the stand.
Mario Torres, Edgar Torres’ younger brother and Mauricio’s uncle, provided similar testimony about the family’s struggles during the civil war in El Salvador before they moved to America. He was also asked if they “overdid it” when it came to disciplining Mauricio.
“Probably, yes,” he said. “It was hard to tell.” He also bemoaned the child’s lack of a mother in his life, but said that “we thought that our love was enough.”
The prosecution had no cross-examination questions for the witness.
Next up was Shari Reed, Mauricio’s ex-aunt, who married his uncle Mario in 1981. She lived with the Torres family for approximately three years and said that young Mauricio was “quiet” and “seemed sad a lot.”
She also described him as “love-starved” and said that he sought out affection from women, including her. She then told the jury that Mauricio was forced to perform exercises as punishment.
“It would be a lot,” she explained. It also “didn’t take a lot for him to get punished” by his father or uncle. She added that he would also be struck with a belt if he slowed down.
Reed also accused Mauricio’s father and uncle of calling him assorted derogatory names. She then went into a story about the rumors regarding Mauricio’s lineage.
“There was a mystery around who his mother really was,” she claimed. She finished by noting that Mauricio’s father and uncles were all physically abusive to their wives and girlfriends.
Nathan Smith only had a few questions during cross, seeking to clarify whether Reed had any actual firsthand knowledge about Mauricio’s mother. She did not.
After a lunch recess, the jury returned and the hearing resumed at 1:33 p.m. with very brief testimony from an inmate that Torres has met while incarcerated. This witness explained that their topics of discussion are regarding “mostly religion” and how they “want to help other people find God.”
The fifth defense witness was three-time convicted murderer Mauricio Torres, who began testifying by saying that he never knew his mother, and that by age three he began asking “where’s my mommy?” He said that when he asked about that a couple of years later, one of his uncles told him that “some things are better left alone.”
He also described forced exercises he performed from the age of three, and punishment for tasks such as being unable to button a shirt. From age 10-12, he was forced into boxing but said he “deliberately lost every fight.”
The tears began to flow when he discussed not receiving enough praise. He then called his job as an occupational therapist “the only place where I could give and receive unconditional love.” He added that his elderly clients would treat him “like a celebrity.”
When asked about the day’s earlier testimony by his adult children, he deemed it “false.” He added that since his arrest for Isaiah’s murder, he has wanted to “give his life to the Lord.” He said he was baptized at the Benton County jail.
“I’m begging you to please don’t kill me,” he said to the jury. “Give me the opportunity to redeem myself. I want to be an ambassador of Christ. Maybe all this happened for a reason.”
During cross-examination, prosecution attorney Nathan Smith observed that the revelations about Mauricio’s mother were “very new information.” He then asked if God was important to him.
“He’s everything to me,” Torres replied. “He’s all I got.”
Smith followed up by asking if the truth was important before referring to a 2002 court document regarding abuse of Bailey Perrin. Torres deflected the responsibility for that incident to Cathy Torres.
“So again, Cathy’s fault,” Smith observed, before reminding Torres that this was “not the first time any of that has come up.” He went on to catch Torres in another lie reflected in testimony in another hearing in which he said he had “no other biological children,” ignoring his older ones.
“Yes, I lied about that,” Torres confirmed. Smith then asked if this was some of the “unconditional love” that Torres mentioned earlier, then asserted that he lied out of concern about a potential DHS visit. Torres said that what Smith was saying was “confusing.”
“You were lying then, but today you’re telling the truth?” Smith countered. Torres then went on to deny any abuse of Ericka.
“I never spanked her,” he said. “She was always very good.”
Holding a large DHS binder labeled “Torres Family,” Smith referred to it again regarding a 2014 incident with Isaiah. Torres explained that the school had called the department, who in turn contacted Torres.
He told them that he was an occupational therapist that “knew his son,” and said that he would take the boy to a doctor to be examined. He never did.
Smith then asked if Torres considered himself a success, to which he said no, explaining that there were always more levels to be reached.
“Then what do you want?” Smith asked.
“I want them not to kill me,” he responded, pointing at the jury. As he left the witness stand, Torres attempted to make a final plea to the jurors before he was admonished by Judge Karren.
The day’s final defense witness was Dr. Benjamin Silber, a board-certified forensic psychologist. He told the jury about his extensive education and professional experience, and noted that he has testified in court over 70 times. He was submitted as an expert witness.
He examined Torres twice, once in person and once over Zoom, and spoke to other people that know him. He added that he also read thousands of pages of documents related to the case.
His finding was that Torres meets the criteria for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, for which there are “a number of considerations.” One requirement is “a presence of a trauma,” but he added that this alone is not enough.
He detailed some of the other symptoms and behaviors often reflected in an individual with a PTSD diagnosis, which can include nightmares, unwelcome thoughts and detachment. He noted that it is often present with “co-occurring mental disorders” such as depression.
The doctor stated that there can be a motivation for dishonest responses from patients during such examinations, and he then added that he saw nothing suggesting that specific mental impairment was present in Torres at the time of the murder.
Smith asked if some initial PTSD symptoms need to be self-reported by the patient. The doctor confirmed that was the case. Smith observed that there are “no blood tests for frequent stressful thoughts” before asking point-blank if PTSD is “easy to fake.”
“Yes, it is,” Dr. Silber confirmed. When Smith probed for further specifics regarding the diagnosis, the doctor said that Torres “denied more than half of the PTSD symptoms when asked.”
A follow-up question led the doctor to state that “quite a few medical conditions” could have contributed to Torres’ symptoms.
He added that there are “a number of things that can impact his sleep.”
At 3:12 p.m., the defense rested and Judge Brad Karren called for a weekend recess. The sentencing phase will resume at 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday, February 21.