SALT LAKE CITY — One of several people charged in the death of a 25-year-old Kearns woman contends there's no reason he should face the possibility of the death penalty while two others accused of similar roles do not.
Defense attorney Neal Hamilton says Orlando Esiesa Tobar, 29, is not the most culpable of those arrested in the kidnapping and murder case of Conzuelo "Nicole" Solorio-Romero.
He wants a judge to reduce the charge that Tobar, of Honduras, faces by one level — from aggravated murder, a capital offense, down to murder, which carries a maximum penalty of up to life in prison.
"This disparate treatment of individuals similarly situated is unconstitutional," Hamilton wrote in court papers filed this week.
The judge hasn't made any ruling yet and prosecutors have not yet responded in court filings.
Tobar and another man are charged with kidnapping Solorio-Romero from her home at gunpoint on Feb. 6, driving her to the Wyoming border and bringing her to a West Valley City home that prosecutors say has ties to a Mexican cartel.
While there, she accused them of murdering her late husband. Tobar said "she knew too much, and she was not going to leave that apartment," moving his head in a gesture before Jorge Rafael Medina-Reyes shot and killed her, court documents allege. Authorities found her body nearly two months later at a different location and Medina-Reyes also faces a charge of aggravated murder.
But a different person, Carolina Marquez, is accused of ordering the kidnapping, telling the men to "kill time" and instructing them to bring Solorio-Romero to the location where she was shot, Hamilton pointed out. He called her his client's "more culpable co-defendant."
Court documents say Solorio-Romero owed Marquez money and had told police where they could find a family member of Marquez who was later arrested. Carolina Marquez's son Fernando Marquez is accused of threatening Solorio-Romero with a gun. Both are charged with murder, a first-degree felony.
Hamilton wrote that "discovery (evidence) suggests that she ordered the murder of Ms. Romero," but didn't elaborate. He and Marquez's defense attorney, Stephen McCaughey, declined comment Friday.
In death penalty cases, defense attorneys are required to investigate early on any mitigating factors that ultimately could help their client avoid a death sentence. But doing so in this case requires investigators to visit parts of Guatemala that are currently very dangerous, Hamilton says, making it difficult to track down information about his client's past, complicating the case immensely,
"We're being asked to climb Mt. Everest, while the co-defendants are being asked to climb Mt. Timpanogos," he said Friday in Salt Lake City's 3rd District Court.
Prosecutors jail key witness
In another twist to the case, a key witness has been jailed by the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office in order to ensure that he'll show up to court to testify.
A material witness warrant was issued May 17 for Caleb Abisay Vela, 27. He was booked into the Salt Lake County Jail on Thursday.
According to court documents, Vela was an eyewitness to Solorio-Romero's death, and "his testimony will establish essential elements" in the cases against Orlando Tobar, Jorge Medina-Reyes, Carolina Marquez, Fernando Marquez and Ivan Acosta.
Vela was taken into custody on Feb. 9 on outstanding warrants after police found him hiding in a closet at a residence at 402 N. 1400 West. Police were originally called to the residence because Solorio-Romero's sister and another man were trying to get into the house to look for her, a search warrant affidavit states.
While Vela was detained by police, he received a message on his phone from Tobar, according to police. After being booked into the Salt Lake County Jail, Vela allegedly made calls to another woman discussing the actions of Acosta, the warrant states.
Vela was convicted of aggravated assault on March 9 for an unrelated incident and was to be turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to be deported, court records indicate. And on Tuesday, a federal judge ordered him to be deported to Mexico for illegal reentry into the United States.
The material witness warrant was then issued by the district attorney's office because Vela would likely not appear on a subpoena if he was released from custody and deported to Mexico, the warrant states.
"Mr. Vela would have nothing to lose by failing to appear for the hearing and giving testimony herein, which testimony is deemed essential to the successful prosecution of (the defendants)," investigators wrote.
Tobar returns to court on June 25.