FAIRFAX — Prosecutors plan to introduce evidence during a capital murder trial that the man accused of the high-profile killing of a Muslim teen in Virginia last year had been suspected of being a member of the violent MS-13 street gang, according to recent court filings.
Darwin Martinez Torres’ brother-in-law believed the 23-year-old was an MS-13 associate as a juvenile in the years before authorities said he abducted, sexually assaulted and killed 17-year-old Nabra Hassanen, according to the filings.
Prosecutors are not alleging the slaying is related to Torres’ alleged affiliation with the gang. But they hope to present the testimony as evidence of Torres’ potentially dangerous conduct if he is convicted at his January trial in Fairfax County and the jury weighs whether to sentence him to death.
News of a possible MS-13 angle in a case that grabbed national attention could have reverberations beyond the trial, since President Donald Trump and his allies have highlighted violence committed by gang members and undocumented immigrants to advocate for hard-line immigration policies.
In recent days, Trump and some Republicans have seized on the case of Mollie Tibbetts, an Iowa college student who authorities said was killed by an undocumented immigrant from Mexico.
The man’s attorney claims he was in the U.S. legally but has offered no evidence to back up the assertion.
At a rally in West Virginia on Tuesday, Trump told a crowd that MS-13 was “on the run” and the killing of Tibbetts “should have never happened.”
“The immigration laws are such a disgrace,” Trump said.
Immigration authorities have also said Torres, who is originally from El Salvador, entered the country illegally.
Hassanen, of Reston, was attacked as she and friends walked back to their Sterling mosque, following a predawn meal during Ramadan in June 2017. Police said Torres approached the group in his car and got into an altercation with one of them, before getting out and chasing them with a baseball bat.
Torres caught Hassanen and hit her with the bat, police said. He then abducted her, sexually assaulted her, killed her and dumped her body in a pond near his Sterling apartment, police said. Torres was arrested a short time later and has been charged with murder, rape and other counts.
Hassanen’s family feared she was targeted because of her faith, but police have called it a “road rage incident” and said they have found no evidence of a hate crime. The slaying drew national coverage and sparked vigils from coast to coast.
Joseph Flood, an attorney for Torres, declined to comment on the allegation that his client may have been a member of MS-13, but in court filings the defense team has sought to have the testimony barred from the trial.
Virginia law allows prosecutors to present evidence of “unadjudicated criminal conduct” during the sentencing phase of a death penalty trial to try to establish if a defendant remains a continuing threat to commit violence. The defense argues that being a gang member is not a crime in and of itself, so the testimony is not admissible.
Prosecutors wrote in a filing that is under seal that Torres’ brother-in-law said the defendant had been associated with the gang through May 2011, according to an excerpt quoted in the defense filing.
The court documents publicly available do not detail Torres’ alleged status with the gang after that, or say whether he left MS-13. Prosecutors also did not detail any alleged activity with the gang, according to the defense filing.
It’s not the first time Torres has been accused of an association with the region’s largest and most violent gang, which has experienced a resurgence up and down the East Coast in recent years.
The week before Hassanen was killed, a woman went to an emergency room at a Loudoun County hospital and reported that Torres had punched, choked and sexually assaulted her and was a member of MS-13, according to two people familiar with her account. The woman declined to pursue charges.
Defense attorneys are preparing to make Torres’ mental capacity an issue in the trial.
A neuropsychologist wrote that he is “likely intellectually disabled” and should be evaluated to determine whether he is too impaired to face the death penalty, according to a filing.