A judge on Thursday appointed two brain experts to evaluate a man facing the death penalty in the slaying of a teenage Muslim girl last year, despite the objections of a prosecutor who derided the requests as "neuro-witchcraft."
Circuit Court Judge Randy Bellows agreed to the appointments of a neuropsychologist and neurotoxicologist to evaluate Darwin Martinez-Torres, 23, of Sterling, who faces charges including capital murder and rape in the June killing of Nabra Hassanen of Reston.
Hassanen was attacked in the pre-dawn hours walking with a group of friends to Ramadan services at her mosque. Her death prompted a national outcry, though police have said there is no evidence she was targeted because of her religion.
Authorities say Martinez-Torres confronted Hassanen and her friends when they were walking in the roadway. They say he caught Nabra, hit her on the head with a baseball bat and took her close to a nearby pond and raped her. After the girl died, prosecutors say, he dumped her body in the water.
Defense lawyers say a key part of their case will be Martinez-Torres' limited mental ability. The U.S. Supreme Court has barred the execution of people with mental disabilities, though the exact standard for determining someone's mental capacity is not always clear.
In Martinez-Torres' case, defense lawyer Joseph Flood said his client was born and raised near an active gold mine in El Salvador where toxins including arsenic and mercury leached into the soil and groundwater. The appointment of a neuro toxicologist could illuminate how Martinez-Torres developed a limited mental capacity, Flood said.
"To offer the jury an explanation of (his limited mental functioning) could be invaluable'' in fighting off a death sentence, Flood said.
Prosecutor Casey Lingan said there would be no way an expert could scientifically prove that Martinez-Torres ingested specific toxins as a baby or that any toxins conclusively caused any mental disabilities. While he acquiesced to the request for a neuropsychologist, he objected to the request for a neurotoxicologist, labeling it "neuro-witchcraft.''
While Bellows agreed to the hiring of a neurotoxicologist, he made clear that he is reserving judgment on whether such testimony would be allowed at trial. He said the defense would have to show a sound basis for the testimony to present it to a jury.
The trial is scheduled for January.