Veronica Nava felt like she was dying inside as she frantically searched for her 4-year-old daughter on a June night nearly four years ago.
After Esmeralda Nava’s lifeless little body was found by searchers eight hours later in nearby woods, the girl’s mother fell to the floor screaming, “begging for what I was hearing not to be true.”
Esmeralda’s parents described their horrifying ordeal Thursday as the man who abducted, raped and murdered their child pleaded guilty in Hall County Superior Court in order to avoid the death penalty.
“I live blaming myself sometimes because my daughter needed me as a father and I could not help her,” Esmeralda’s father, Jesus Lopez Rios, told Judge Kathlene Gosselin through an interpreter.
The girl’s killer, Cornelio Rivera Zamites, 28, pleaded guilty Thursday to murder, rape, kidnapping with bodily injury and other offenses and was sentenced by Gosselin to life without the possibility of parole, plus three consecutive life sentences, plus 20 years.
Zamites agreed in writing that he would never appeal his sentence. He declined to address the court.
Hall County District Attorney Lee Darragh said he reluctantly agreed to the plea deal out of concerns of what might happen if the case went to trial.
Darragh told the judge the decision “has been especially difficult for me. The acts of the defendant clearly justify the defendant being put to death by lethal injection.”
Ultimately, however, Zamites’ low IQ may have saved him from the death chamber. Darragh said he worried about the possibility of a jury finding the defendant guilty but mentally retarded, which would prevent a death sentence. Even if Zamites was found guilty, the jury might have considered Zamites’ low mental functioning in the sentencing phase of a death penalty trial and voted to spare his life, Darragh said.
Darragh said those risks were significant enough “for me to close this case through this guilty plea so as to ensure that Cornelio Zamites never sees the light of freedom again.”
The plea came three days after a jury found Zamites mentally competent to stand trial. Georgia’s legal standard for competency is different than the standard for retardation.
During Monday’s trial, evidence was presented that one court-appointed expert found Zamites to have an IQ of 67. Another expert hired by the prosecution testified that Zamites had an IQ of 82 and was not mentally disabled.
Darragh said an attorney for Zamites last week provided him with reports of two additional experts hired by the defense who were prepared to testify that Zamites had “significantly subaverage intellectual functioning” that would qualify him as mentally disabled under Georgia law.
Darragh said he consulted with Esmeralda’s parents before agreeing to the plea deal.
“After much thought and prayer, they have expressed to us in the district attorney’s office that they would like to see the matter closed and behind them,” Darragh said.
Darragh briefly outlined the case against Zamites in court. The prosecutor said Esmeralda was with her parents when they visited a home on Pratt Reece Road in southeastern Hall County where Zamites lived with the girl’s uncle. Esmeralda went to a neighbors house to see if she could play with children there. After a while, her father went to check on her and was told by the woman who lived there that the girl was in the bathroom.
The father left, but returned again soon after to check on Esmeralda and was told she had already left. He grew more worried when he found one of the girl’s shoes at the edge of the woods and a bandana that Zamites was seen wearing.
Zamites later told investigators that he had been drinking and using cocaine and methamphetamine when he was approached by the girl near a chicken shack where he was listening to a radio. He said he grabbed the girl and held his hand over the girl’s mouth as she cried out for her father.
Zamites then carried her down the woods across a creek and sexually assaulted her before strangling or smothering her.
After the girl’s body was recovered, a massive search was mounted for Zamites, with many speculating he had fled to his native Mexico. In fact, he stayed in woods close by the murder scene, watching his home and going in to eat when no one was near by. He was arrested four days after the killing. A DNA sample taken from Zamites matched evidence recovered from the girl.
Zamites was indicted in September 2005, and Darragh filed notice of intent to seek the death penalty in June 2006.
Rios, the girl’s father, told Gosselin that he missed the kisses and hugs of his playful and affectionate daughter ‘Esme,’ who would be 8 years old now if she had lived.
“There isn’t a day or night in which I don’t think of how my daughter would be today,” Rios said.
Both parents said they felt some measure of peace with the closure of the case.
“Today is a day in which I find myself more tranquil because justice will be served,” Rios said.
The girl’s mother said she could not “find in my heart forgiveness for this person. He has caused irreparable damage to me and my whole family ... but knowing that he will never get out of jail gives me a little bit of peace of mind for me and my family.”
Gosselin told the family that she can’t know the terrifying ordeal they went through or the overwhelming sorrow they feel.
“The best we can do is impose a sentence in this case that ensures Mr. Zamites never hurts another child, and I think this sentence does that,” Gosselin said.