Last Tuesday, a Benton County jury sentenced Mauricio Torres to die for the murder of his 6-year-old son, Isaiah Torres, in the culmination of a trial that included testimony from six of Torres’ surviving children and stepchildren as to years of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of the Bella Vista occupational therapist assistant.
The death sentence came one day after the jury convicted Torres of capital murder and first-degree battery following days of testimony from prosecution witnesses. The defense called no witnesses, and Torres did not testify. Torres, 45, was arrested last April along with his wife, Cathy Torres, who has also been charged with capital murder and first-degree battery and is awaiting trial. (Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty in that case as well.)
According to the defendant’s account in police interviews conducted soon after the murder, Mauricio and Cathy Torres took Isaiah and his two older sisters on a camping trip to Missouri on the weekend of March 28, 2015. On the morning of March 29, after Isaiah was found eating cake without permission, his father punished him by inserting a stick into his anus and making him perform squats in a corner. “Cathy got mad because [Isaiah] … wasn’t going fast enough … so she pushed him down,” Torres said in a recorded interview played for the jury. The family then drove back to Bella Vista, and Torres claims that he and his wife did not realize the child was seriously injured until they arrived home. They called 911 that evening, and medics notified police when they arrived at the Torres home to find the child unresponsive.
Dr. Stephen Erickson of the Arkansas State Crime Lab was the medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Isaiah Torres. He told the jury that the child died from septic shock brought about by acute peritonitis: “a traumatic disruption of his rectum from a foreign object.” But Erickson also said that before that “ultimate fatal injury” occurred, the autopsy showed there was “no doubt whatsoever that this child was subjected to a prolonged period of abuse.” He showed the jury graphic autopsy images revealing scars, bruises and lacerations on his face, trunk and extremities; “puncture wounds everywhere” on his scalp; injuries on his fingers, likely from “shielding himself against blows”; and over 60 “whip marks” on his back, in Erickson’s phrasing.
“This is chronic child abuse. It could go in a textbook,” he said. The photo evidence was also backed up by the testimony of one of Isaiah’s sisters, who said Mauricio Torres regularly beat and hit her brother, among other acts of abuse.
Earlier in the trial, the jury also heard from two of Isaiah’s former kindergarten teachers at Bentonville’s Ambassadors for Christ Academy, Peri Heffernan and Hannah Welshenbaugh. Both had taken pictures that showed bruises on Isaiah. Heffernan testified that she had called the Arkansas Department of Human Services in 2014 with her concerns about child abuse.
However, the child welfare investigation that followed apparently did not find evidence to substantiate the claims of abuse, as the Arkansas Times reported in 2015. This is despite the fact that both Mauricio and Cathy Torres had other children removed from their custody by DHS a decade previously, in 2004 or 2005, following a child maltreatment investigation that evidently was substantiated. It is still unclear why the 2014 investigation initiated by Hefferman’s call to DHS failed to uncover that aspect of the parents’ history, but child welfare authorities last year indicated a clerical or computer systems mistake was partly to blame.
To win a capital murder conviction, prosecutors needed to convince the jury that the fatal injury should be considered rape, and/or that Torres “knowingly caused” the death of his child. Defense attorneys could do little to deny Torres’ role in Isaiah’s death, but they hoped to convince jurors the evidence would only support the lesser included offense of first-degree murder. Torres’ attorneys attempted to plant some doubt as to whether his bizarre actions were actually performed for the sake of sexual gratification and with the intent to kill his son.
“Whatever they did, as despicable as it is, they didn’t do it knowing the child would die,” attorney Bill James told the jury during opening statements. During closing arguments, James said, “This is not a rape case. … You can assume all you want, but the problem is that … [the prosecutor] has to prove it.”
Prosecutor Nathan Smith made the case during closing arguments that Isaiah’s death was “a sadistic act of sexual torture. … You know that is an act of sexual gratification just based on common sense.” He also noted that Erickson had testified that Isaiah would have likely survived his injuries if they had been treated quickly. “Had they [called 911] a couple hours after the fact, he’d probably be alive today. Why didn’t they? Because they had committed a crime,” Smith said.
The jury evidently found it quite easy to conclude capital murder occurred: It took less than an hour to reach a guilty verdict.
During the sentencing phase of the trial, the jury heard more horror stories from three former stepchildren and two biological children of Torres, all of whom lived with the defendant in Jonesboro during the late 1990s or early 2000s. All but one are now young adults in their early 20s (the fifth is still a minor). All told the court that they suffered chronic abuse at the hands of Mauricio Torres. Some alleged sexual crimes, some said they were repeatedly beaten and struck, and some said they experienced both physical and sexual abuse.
Among the victims were Quinton Martin, 21, and Nicholas Martin, 22, both of whom were biological children of Cathy Torres by other men before she married Mauricio. Both are now in prison in East Arkansas. Quinton Martin, who lived with his stepfather between the ages of 4 and 8, said “it was a daily occurrence, where we’d get hit with belts … from our ankles to the top of our back. … I guess for his amusement, he’d make us come into the living room and fight each other, and if we didn’t, he’d hit us.” Nicholas Martin also described being made to fight his brothers and being beaten with a belt, with wire coat hangers or with his stepfather’s fists. He and his brothers didn’t tell anyone, he said, because “we feared for our lives.”
Mauricio Torres had at least two children with a previous wife before he met Cathy Torres, and they also testified against their father at his sentencing. Maurice Torres, Jr., 21, and Ericka Torres, 24, said they were repeatedly sexually and physically abused by their father before he left their mother. Maurice said his father would hit him “multiple times a day” with his fists or with “anything that was close by,” and that the beatings began “when I was around 4 or 5.” Both also said their father raped them.
Torres joins 34 other men on Arkansas’s death row.
>Ibby Caputo contributed reporting for this story. Funding for her reporting was provided by people who donated to a crowdfunding campaign on ioby.com and the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.