By Keith L. Alexander, Published: July 30, 2012
An Argentine woman charged in the 2007 slaying of a Washington paralegal pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter Monday shortly before a jury was to be selected for her murder trial.
Prosecutors had charged Blanca Ortiz, 47, with first-degree murder while armed in the Jan. 8, 2007 fatal stabbing of Gabriela Jose Lopez Hernandez, 29. They had previously offered Ortiz a plea of second-degree murder that was rejected; over the weekend, prosecutors offered the lesser charge, and Ortiz accepted Monday.
Ortiz agreed to an Alford plea, acknowledging that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict her but not admitting the killing.
She is scheduled to be sentenced in October, when she will face a prison term of between five and eight years. She cannot appeal, and could face deportation when her sentence ends.
Lopez’s naked body was found in the bathtub of her Kalorama Triangle efficiency apartment. She had been stabbed at least 15 times and had suffered a blunt-force head injury. An area near her body had been scrubbed with bleach.
Ortiz had repeatedly told detectives and prosecutors she was not involved in the killing since she was first questioned in the days following the death of Lopez, a friend she met during tango lessons in 2005.
But authorities had maintained that Ortiz killed Lopez during a domestic dispute; the women, prosecutors said, were romantically involved. Ortiz is married to a man who lives in Saudi Arabia and repeatedly denied having a romantic relationship with Lopez.
Ortiz, a native Spanish speaker, stood next to an interpreter and defense attorney Andrew Jezic on Monday as Jezic explained to D.C. Superior Court Judge Ronna L. Beck that he, his client and a therapist met several times during the weekend at the D.C. jail.
On Sunday, Jezic said, Ortiz decided to take the plea and acknowledged that she “could” have suffered memory loss and forgotten the events surrounding Lopez’s death.
Ortiz was charged in Lopez’s slaying in 2008, but by then had returned to Argentina. She told police there that she “barely” knew Lopez, according to court records. She was extradited to the United States last year.
A jury trial might have been challenging for Deborah Sines and Glenn Kirschner, among the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s most senior homicide prosecutors. No DNA linked Ortiz to the killing, and investigators had found no weapons or eyewitnesses.
But at Monday’s proceedings, Sines outlined various pieces of evidence that she thought would have convinced a jury of Ortiz’s guilt.
Security video showed Ortiz entering Lopez’s apartment the morning prosecutors think she was killed, then leaving three hours later. Ortiz told detectives in separate interviews that she was only inside for a few minutes and then, later, that she was there for about an hour.
Ortiz told detectives she was wearing a brown overcoat when she visited Lopez. But in the video, prosecutors say, she was wearing a blue coat. Police never found it, leading them to think Ortiz discarded the coat after killing Lopez.
Hours after prosecutors say Lopez was attacked in her apartment, Sines said Ortiz told her landlord that she wanted to break her lease and planned to return to Argentina.
Sines also spoke of pictures on Lopez’s cellphone and computer that showed the women kissing, embracing, vacationing and spending holidays together.
“They had an extremely close, personal relationship,” Sines said. Authorities asserted that the number of stab wounds indicated a crime of passion committed by someone in a close relationship with Lopez.
In a court filing last week, Jezic said he planned to present alternative theories of how Lopez might have been killed by discussing at trial three men who could be responsible: an ex-boyfriend of Ortiz’s and another of Lopez’s, plus Lopez’s former boss, an Arlington County immigration lawyer.
Neither Sines nor Kirschner would discuss the manslaughter plea. But one prosecutor familiar with the case said Ortiz’s previously clean record, and the fact that domestic violence cases in which an individual appears to have “snapped” frequently result in voluntary manslaughter convictions, might have influenced their decision.
At one point during the proceedings, Ortiz began to sob. Jezic sat her down and tried to console her, then asked Beck for a glass of water for his client. “We don’t have any water,” said Beck, who denied the request.