A 25-year-old Sterling man pleaded guilty Wednesday to capital murder in the slaying of a Muslim teen he encountered last year while she and her friends walked to their Virginia mosque.
The plea allows Darwin Martinez Torres to avoid a possible death sentence in the abduction, sexual assault and killing of Nabra Hassanen, 17. Many feared Nabra’s killing during Ramadan in June 2017 was an anti-Muslim hate crime, but police have said they found no evidence it was motivated by bias.
Under an agreement with prosecutors, Torres will be sentenced to life in prison. He also pleaded guilty to rape in the case, which had been set to go to trial in January.
[Prosecutors to seek death penalty in killing of Nabra Hassanen]
Nabra, a student at South Lakes High School in Reston, Va., and a group of friends had gone out for a pre-dawn meal during the early hours of June 18, 2017, a common practice for young people at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) mosque during Ramadan.
As they walked back to the Sterling mosque around 3:40 a.m., Torres, a construction worker, approached in a red car and got into a verbal altercation with one of the teens on a bike, police said.
Torres then drove his car over the curb of the roadway toward the group of about 15 young people, sending them fleeing, police said. They said Torres caught up with some of the group in a parking lot a short distance away, and police said he got out of the car and gave chase with a baseball bat.
Torres caught Nabra, hit her with the bat and then dragged her into his car, police said. Authorities allege that Torres then drove to Loudoun County, where he sexually assaulted Nabra and killed her before dumping her body in a small pond next to the apartment complex where he lived.
Officers were summoned to the scene where Torres first encountered the teens about 4:10 a.m., police said. A little over an hour later, a teen who was part of the group noticed Torres’s car circling nearby and alerted police.
Police stopped the vehicle and found blood inside, according to court documents. Torres was detained and later admitted killing Nabra, according to a search warrant. He then led police to her body in the pond.
A medical examiner ruled Nabra died of blunt force trauma to her neck and head. Her death prompted hundreds to turn out to remember her during a candlelight vigil in Reston, as well as other cities including Philadelphia and San Francisco.
Torres, who is originally from El Salvador, is suspected of being in the country illegally, federal immigration officials said. They have placed a detainer on him, meaning they might pursue deportation proceedings against him if he were ever released.
The case has drawn an outpouring of emotion. During a preliminary hearing in October 2017, about 250 of Nabra’s friends and family attended. The hearing was temporarily delayed after Nabra’s father yelled, “You killed my daughter!” and lunged toward Torres. The girl’s mother also threw a shoe in the suspect’s direction.
In recent months, Torres’s attorneys had been readying a defense that he is intellectually disabled and therefore barred from facing the death penalty.
The attorneys have been gathering evidence to make the case that Torres was exposed to mercury and other neurotoxins in utero and as a young child growing up near a gold mine in rural El Salvador.