This post has been updated since its original publication.
A divided Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday reversed the capital murder conviction of Mauricio Torres, a Bella Vista man sentenced to death in Nov. 2016 for the killing of his 6-year-old son, Isaiah Torres.
The court remanded the case for a new trial. The majority’s opinion said the reversal was due to an underlying flaw in the legal arguments made by prosecutors, turning on the question of whether an Arkansas trial court had jurisdiction in regards to a rape allegation underlying the capital murder conviction.
Isaiah Torres was killed by Mauricio and his wife, Cathy Torres, while on a family camping trip in Missouri in March 2015. The details of the case are gruesome: The child died from septic shock brought about by acute peritonitis due to a stick inserted in his rectum. The parents said this was a form of punishment, meted out because the boy had eaten cake without permission. The family drove back to their home in Bella Vista later that day but did not seek medical attention for Isaiah until he proved to be unresponsive. He was declared dead at a Benton County hospital that night. (Cathy Torres pleaded guilty to capital murder in 2017 and was sentenced to life in prison.)
The Torres case became notorious not only because of the brutality of the crime but because the state Department of Human Services had investigated allegations of child abuse against Cathy and Mauricio Torres twice in 2014.The child welfare agency found the allegations unsubstantiated both times — but caseworkers failed to see DHS records showing the couple had had a long history with the authorities. Several other children were removed from their custody in the early 2000s.
In their appeal to the Supreme Court, Mauricio Torres’ attorneys laid out nine points, but the opinion issued by the court today deals only with the first.
Arkansas’s capital murder statute, §5-10-101, lays out a list of certain standards that indicate when a killing rises to the level of capital murder. One way to prove capital murder is if a killing was committed “in the course of and in furtherance of” any of a list of other felonies, such as terrorism, rape or kidnapping. Another way to prove capital murder is if the victim was 14 or younger.
At trial, Benton County prosecutors presented both of these theories, “rape felony murder” and “child-abuse murder,” as two alternative paths for the jury to reach a capital murder conviction for Mauricio Torres. On appeal, Torres’ attorneys argued that the rape felony murder theory was legally impermissible. Benton County Circuit Court Judge Brad Karren should have directed a verdict on that particular formulation, they said. That’s because the felony underlying this capital murder theory — rape — occurred in Missouri, not in Arkansas.
The Supreme Court agreed. The majority’s opinion today said that “because the State charged Torres with capital murder pursuant to capital felony murder, the State must prove the underlying felony as it becomes an element of the murder charge.”
In other words, even though Isaiah Torres died in Arkansas, the rape itself occurred outside the state’s jurisdiction. That means the “rape felony murder” conviction cannot stand, because the underlying rape charge couldn’t have been legally prosecuted in Arkansas:
Further, the State conceded in oral argument that it could not have charged Torres with rape in Arkansas. If Torres could not have been charged in this state, that necessarily means that the elements of rape could not have been met in this state. If the elements of rape cannot be met, rape cannot serve as an element of capital murder.
The opinion does not delve into the legality of the prosecutors’ second possible path to a capital murder conviction, the “child-abuse murder” formulation. But the jury in the Torres case did not indicate which of the two capital murder theories they relied upon in convicting Torres. That means the entire conviction was tainted by the illegality of the first theory, the justices said, pointing to a standard that’s been well established by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Because of the general-verdict-form formulation, we are unable to determine which formula — rape felony murder or child- abuse-murder — the jury based its conviction on,” the majority’s opinion states.
Justice Karen Baker authored the opinion, joined by Courtney Goodson and Robin Wynne.
Justice Jo Hart wrote a concurring opinion agreeing with the majority’s conclusions but arguing the court should have also addressed other points raised by Torres’ attorneys, which are likely to come up again at remand. In particular, she noted “the use of uncharged alleged crimes, for which the statute of limitations would have since expired, as the basis for an aggravating factor at sentencing in a death penalty case.”
In the sentencing phase of the Torres trial, prosecutors called five adult children and stepchildren of Mauricio Torres who testified he had subjected them to physical and sexual abuse in the 1990s and early 2000s. Torres was never charged with or convicted of any of those allegations, all of which fall outside the statute of limitations.
Hart wrote that “the allegations at issue here are condemnable, but the ugliness of a given allegation cannot supersede the most basic due process principles guaranteed to all citizens by our constitution.”
Three justices dissented: Chief Justice Dan Kemp and Justices Shawn Womack and Rhonda Wood. The dissent, authored by Womack, recites the grotesque facts of the case, including evidence of severe child abuse suffered by Isaiah long before his death.
The dissenting justices said the Benton County trial court had jurisdiction to convict Torres of felony murder predicated on the Missouri rape.
“To be sure, the prosecution must prove the underlying felony to sustain a felony murder conviction … [but] proof of the underlying felony is an essential element because it functions as the mens rea for the murder. … In order to establish jurisdiction, the underlying felony is significant for that reason alone,” Womack wrote.