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Sonoma County judge tosses first-degree murder charge against Healdsburg teen

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A Healdsburg teenager charged with killing his brother in March had his charges reduced Wednesday by Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Dana Simonds.

Moses Torres, 18, originally was charged with first- degree murder and voluntary manslaughter in the stabbing death of his brother Ivan Torres, 25. Following a preliminary hearing that concluded Wednesday, Simonds tossed the first-degree murder charge, but let the voluntary manslaughter charge stand. And the younger Torres remains in jail pending a bail hearing July 24.

Last month, the judge denied a request by Torres to leave jail to attend his mother’s funeral under an escort from the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office. The District Attorney’s Office and the Sherriff’s Office convinced the judge that releasing Torres for the day would pose too great a danger to the community.

In order to convict on a first-degree murder charge, prosecutors would have to prove that Moses Torres acted with malice aforethought in the killing, and Simonds said prosecutors had presented no evidence of that action.

According to a summary of the evidence given by Simonds Wednesday, the three surviving witnesses to the stabbing all told largely the same story.

On the evening of March 27, Ivan Torres arrived at the Healdsburg apartment shared by Moses Torres, his father, Luis Torres, and two friends of the family, Jesse Moreno and Alycia Bennett.

Ivan Torres demanded Moreno come outside, Simonds said, telling Moreno “If you want to stay here, you have to be a homie” and fight him for 13 seconds.

The witnesses said Moreno followed Ivan Torres out of the apartment and the pair turned a corner. Fearing for Moreno’s safety, Bennett and Moses Torres followed them outside.

Turning the corner, they saw Ivan Torres punch Moreno in the face, Simonds said. Bennett jumped between Ivan Torres and Moreno, and then Torres threatened Bennett, telling her “get ... out of my way or I’ll punch you, too.”

The fight was marked by “a lot of chaos and yelling,” Simonds said.

Ivan Torres reached for a screwdriver he was carrying in his waistband, and Moses Torres stabbed him in the stomach. Ivan Torres died on his way to the hospital, and a Sonoma County Coroner’s investigation found his heart had been punctured by a stab wound.

Moses Torres testified that he knew his older brother to carry a screwdriver, and had seen him pulling it out of his waistband, Simonds said. Police later located the screwdriver, along with Ivan Torres’ cellphone, in his father’s bedroom.

Ivan Torres had a history of violence, Simonds said. Moses Torres had witnessed him stab both their father and their brother, Martin Torres, on separate occasions, the judge said.

Ivan Torres also had been violent toward his younger brother, on one occasion punching him in the face unprovoked and telling him “you’re not a man if you don’t fight back,” the judge said.

And he had recently been released from prison on a 2017 charge of illegally carrying concealed knives.

In dropping the first-degree murder charge, Simonds said that the evidence showed Moses Torres believed he was acting to protect Bennett. But a voluntary manslaughter charge still could proceed, because it’s not clear if that belief was reasonable, Simonds said.

“I think Moses Torres acted in the actual belief of the need to defend Miss Bennett,” the judge said. “The court believes, though, that it would be a jury question whether Moses Torres overreacted.”

Defense attorney Scott Emerick, who represented Torres along with attorney Kristine Burk, said the fight and killing were “a very quick exchange, with I’m sure a lot of adrenaline.”

“This really was a dangerous situation, and if he hadn’t acted, I don’t think anybody could predict what would have happened,” Burk said.

The District Attorney’s Office was not available for comment on the case Wednesday afternoon.

Burk and Emerick said they will argue next week at the bail hearing that their client should be released from jail on pre- trial supervision, without paying any bail.

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Beale at 707-521-5205 or andrew.beale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @iambeale.

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