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Prosecutors can proceed with death penalty request in murder of girl

by Christy Chalmers, staff writer

Prosecutors can proceed with plans to try a Stateline man for the murder of a 9-year-old girl and seek execution if he is convicted.

District Judge Dave Gamble ruled Thursday there’s enough evidence to try Thomas Robert Soria Sr., 39, for the March 19 murder of Krystal Steadman. A day earlier, he denied a request by Soria’s lawyers to strike a notice of prosecutors’ intentions to seek the death penalty.

Soria is charged with murder, kidnapping and sexual assault and is scheduled to go to trial in January. His son, Thomas Soria Jr., 19, already pleaded guilty to murder and kidnapping and has been sentenced to life in prison. His plea was part of an agreement that includes testifying against his father. In exchange, prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty.

Steadman disappeared March 19 from a parking lot at the Stateline apartment complex where the Sorias lived. Her battered body was found a day later off Highway 50.

Soria Sr. was bound over for trial after a May preliminary hearing, but his lawyers challenged the murder charge, saying there isn’t evidence putting him at the murder scene or connecting him to the body. Investigators used DNA evidence to link him to the sexual assault of Steadman.

During the preliminary hearing, officers said they found Soria Sr. asleep in the master bedroom of his apartment several hours after Steadman disappeared, but they didn’t see blood or signs the area had been cleaned.

“You need some evidence that the murder took place in the apartment. There is no such evidence in the preliminary hearing,” defense lawyer John Springgate said Wednesday.

“I think putting it into the context of this other evidence supports the finding,” countered Deputy District Attorney Tom Perkins. “These aren’t guesses. These aren’t speculated inferences.”

In a two-page ruling, Gamble wrote that probable cause findings don’t require enough evidence for a conviction, adding there was “substantial evidence” to bind Soria Sr. over on the murder charge.

The defense team also lost a bid to throw out the death penalty. The lawyers contended the prosecutors hadn’t followed the right procedures in filing the notice and said allowing it to stand would jeopardize Soria Sr.’s due process rights.

Gamble denied the request, saying the defense can proceed just as it would have otherwise.

The sides also worked out arrangements for swapping evidence, including taped interviews of witnesses and access to statements given by Soria Jr.

Defense attorney Michael Roeser said the team will be focusing on Soria Jr.’s statements to see if he gave any conflicting stories. He said the defense team may try to subpoena Soria Jr.’s lawyers to compare their versions of Soria Jr.’s involvement in Steadman’s death with the statements he gave investigators.

Deputy District Attorney Alan Buttell said prosecutors are “100 percent aboard with Soria Jr.’s statements.” Soria Jr.’s lawyers said during his sentencing hearing that Soria Jr. brought Steadman to the family’s apartment, but they implied his father was responsible for the multiple stab wounds she suffered.

Two additional hearings are set to sort through the various requests and challenges that are expected as the trial date approaches. The next one is Sept. 11.