In the early hours of June 18 in Sterling, Virginia, 17-year-old Nabra Hassanen was abducted and murdered while walking with friends near her local mosque. Now, the man accused of Hassanen's murder has been indicted by a Fairfax County grand jury on eight counts, including rape and murder, the Washington Post reported. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
“You conform the charges to what the evidence will show,” Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh announced on Monday. “It is my intention to seek the death penalty.” He declined to further discuss the evidence that led to the indictments as the case is still pending. But this was the first time that authorities indicated Hassanen was sexually assaulted.
Because 22-year-old Darwin Martinez Torres is accused of abducting Hassanen with intent to "defile and object sexual penetration" and then killing her, that falls on the list of 15 "aggravating circumstances" in Virginia that would warrant the death penalty. "Each state has its own set of aggravating circumstances," Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, tells Bustle. "Murder during a commission of a felony, such as rape, would become a potentially capital offense."
According to the Associated Press, Torres reportedly admitted to the police that he killed Hassanen and led them to her body. Bustle has reached out to Dawn Butorac, the public defender representing Torres, but she could not be immediately reached for comment.
There has been controversy surrounding Hassanen's murder since police classified it as a road rage incident, rather than a hate crime. According to reports, Hassanen and her friends were confronted by Torres in his car as they made their way to the mosque during Ramadan. Everyone but Hassanen managed to escape to safety. Her body was later found in a nearby pond. "Based on the information that detectives have, there's no indication that this was a hate or bias crime," Fairfax County Police Department spokesperson, Don Gotthardt, told Bustle back in June.
"Road rage is not homicide," Dunham says. "Road rage is potentially motivation, but it's not a separate offense. A capital offense is premeditated murder with the presence of certain statutory aggravated circumstances."
While there's no clear-cut criteria for "road rage," Mary Vriniotis, a researcher at the Harvard Injury Control Research Center in Boston, tells Bustle, "Certainly sexual assault and kidnapping are nearly unheard of as examples of 'road rage' behaviors." While she admitted she could "see how this incident started with a perpetrator driving in his car, ostensibly being angered by behavior that was occurring by others while he was driving," the rest of the crime is "atypical from what's normally viewed as road rage." The fact that the victims were not in a car and that Torres allegedly went on to abduct and rape Hassanen "puts it far outside" a typical road rage case, Vriniotis says.
The fact that police are not classifying Hassanen's case as a hate crime doesn't directly dictate the punishment that her murderer faces. However, the classification of the crime could potentially affect the jury's perception, according to Dunham.
"The jury considers the circumstances of the offense when it is determining whether the reasons for death outweigh the reasons for life," he says. "We know that facts that inflame the emotions of a jury are likely to result in harsher sentences. If there is something about the act that is particularly atrocious, prosecutors will emphasize that. The horror of an offense makes it more likely to result in the death sentence."
But Dunham says the fact that police are investigating this murder as a road rage incident — for which there is no legal definition — could potentially help Torres' legal defense. "If the theory is road rage, that in itself suggests there’s mental issues involved," Dunham says. "A 'rage' is by definition an uncontrollable anger, and so if their theory is that this was during the course of a continuing rage, then they are admitting to a serious mental-health condition, which under the law would tend to undermine the likelihood that they would get the death sentence."