ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The suspect charged in a shooting that killed a 4-year-old Albuquerque girl during what police say was a road-rage fight was sentenced to 16 years in prison on a murder charge Thursday before a packed courtroom filled with the tearful family members of the young victim.
Tony Torrez, 33, apologized to the girl's family at his plea hearing a day after he accepted a deal with prosecutors that called for them to dismiss two counts of assault and a first-degree murder charge in exchange for him entering an Alford plea to a second-degree murder charge.
First-degree murder carried a life term. An Alford plea means Torrez does not admit guilt but acknowledges there is evidence to convict him.
"I'm sorry for taking the life of Lilly," Torrez said. "I had no intention of hurting anyone that day. I ask for forgiveness from the bottom of my heart ... I thought I was going to be the next road rage victim."
Lilly Garcia, a preschooler, and her older brother were in the backseat of their father Alan Garcia's pickup, heading home from school, when police say a lane-change dispute on Interstate-40 between Garcia and Torrez escalated. Lilly was struck with a bullet in the back of the head and died at University of New Mexico Hospital.
A prosecutor said experts would have testified at the jury trial that Lilly immediately became unconscious when she was shot and that she wasn't able to feel any pain.
Torrez told investigators that Garcia had run him off the road and that he feared for his life when he shot at the family's truck with the intention of firing off warning shots. He also said he did not know children were in the backseat when he opened fire — a defense that Veronica Garcia, the victim's mother, rejected outright in her comments to the judge.
Through tears, Veronica Garcia recalled in court how she rushed to the hospital the day of the killing, and described the toll the shooting has taken on her family.
She and her husband brought photographs of their daughter to court, with one large image of the victim smiling and wearing a pink tank top and matching cowboy boots propped against a courtroom bench.
"Lilly was a beautiful, comedic young girl that had a spark to her that I know if she had the chance she would have been somebody," Veronica Garcia said.
She also described her anger at what she sees as faults in the state's justice, saying she remained outraged that Torrez had not been held accountable in court in the past.
Torrez has an arrest record, but no prior felony convictions, according to online court records. He had a previous arrest on domestic violence and aggravated battery charges but evaded prosecution in the case and others, including an altercation that police said followed a dispute over a lane change in a parking structure.
In the months following her daughter's death, she became a vocal advocate for tougher crime laws and agreed to have a proposed law that would have expanded the state's three-strikes statute named for her daughter.
The legislation died in the Legislature this year. It would have added more than a dozen felonies to the list of crimes that make offenders with multiple violent crime convictions eligible for life sentences.
Torrez's attorneys had signaled in court motions and hearings that they would argue during the trial that Alan Garcia, the victim's father, also was to blame in the road rage fight.
"I'm not perfect, I have my flaws," Garcia said. "But I have no criminal record, especially one as colorful as that of Mr. Torrez."