DANVILLE — Four years after the bodies of Theodore “Teddy” Hill and Zarra Laws Strickland were discovered in a secluded area west of Danville, each with bullet wounds to the head, Vanessa Morris had a chance to confront her daughter’s killer.
“Mr. Torres,” Morris began, addressing Glen T. Torres Jr., 31, of Indianapolis at his sentencing hearing Thursday in Vermilion County Circuit Court.
“You knew that Zarra and Tammy were friends since their youth,” she said, referring to Torres’ girlfriend, “and that they attended the same church, sang in the choir together and were on the usher board at ... (the) church where Tammy’s grandmother was an associate minister. ... Why would you do harm to her or move her body so that her family wouldn’t be able to give her a decent burial?”
Before Torres was sentenced to two mandatory life sentences in prison, he addressed Morris, Hill’s mother, two of the victims’ siblings and Strickland’s 11-year-old, son who was in the courtroom. But they didn’t get the answers they had hoped for.
“I’d like to say sorry for y’all’s loss. ... (But) I stand here an innocent man. ... I can’t give y’all answers. I do not know. ... I was a scapegoat,” he said to the family members.
Afterward, Circuit Judge Nancy Fahey sentenced Torres, formerly of Danville, to the two life terms.
“I have no discretion in this case,” Fahey said, pointing out that the law demands the harsh sentence for cases “so horrific, so heinous, so disgusting that natural life is the only possible sentence that fits.”
The judge also said she found a number of aggravating factors to support it — including the nature of the crime, Torres’ extensive criminal history, Torres being on parole when the murders occurred and the need to deter others — and no mitigating factors.
On April 23, a jury deliberated just under three hours before finding Torres guilty of fatally shooting Mr. Hill, 29, and Ms. Strickland, 28, as they were riding in a car on Logan Avenue in Danville in the early morning of Aug. 2, 2015, and that he personally fired the weapon that caused their deaths.
The couple’s bodies, heavily infested by insects, were discovered two days later near a treeline at a vacant property at 322 Western Ave., west of town.
At Torres’ seven-day trial, key prosecution witness Marquis Robinson testified that on Aug. 1, 2015, his drug dealer, the late Joshua “J” Robinson, put out a hit on Hill and Terlandon Givens after Givens robbed Joshua Robinson and shot him in the leg the day before.
Marquis Robinson also testified that late that night and into the next morning, he was driving Torres, Mr. Hill and Strickland in his then-girlfriend’s car when Torres shot Mr. Hill in the back of the head; ordered Robinson at gunpoint to drive to the location west of Danville, where he dumped the couple’s bodies; then ordered him to drive him to his home on the east side of Indianapolis.
Earlier, he said that Torres had been offered $5,000 and paid $500 upfront to take out Mr. Hill and Givens, and that Torres had paid him $200 to drive him around to look for them.
Special prosecutors Jonathan McKay, Mary Claire Nicholson and Kathleen Duhig of the Illinois Attorney General’s Office also presented physical and forensic evidence, including Torres’ fingerprint that was found inside the car; witness testimony that he tried to sell the car on Craigslist and then retrieve it from an impound company once he learned it was wanted in the police investigation; and other witness testimony, including Marquis Robinson’s then-girlfriend and Torres’ uncle, who said that Torres confessed to the killings.
Prior to the sentencing on Thursday, Fahey denied two separate motions to overturn Torres’ conviction and grant him a new trial, one of which claimed that trial attorneys Leon Parker and Dan Brown were ineffective.
Then it was the victims’ family members turn to speak.
“I just want you to know you took a piece of my heart,” Rita Cooper said to Torres during her victim-impact statement.
“I forgive you because I’m a Christian ... but it’s very hard,” Cooper continued through tears, adding his relatives will be able to see him, albeit behind bars, but “I never will get to see my son.”
Sharita Hill described her brother as “a jokester, silly and a good person to be around.” She also said he was her protector, friend “and person you could call and he would come running.”
“My protector was stolen from me in the blink of an eye,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes.
Wesley Laws described his older sister as his “second mama.”
“I looked up to Zarra,” he said, his voice choked with emotion. “Zarra taught me everything in my life — basketball, track. ... She taught me how to be a man. She really taught me everything.”
He recalled the long, agonizing wait on Western Avenue and getting the horrifying news that one of the bodies was indeed his sister’s.
“I had to leave from the crime scene ... and go tell my sister’s kids their mama was murdered, and she was never coming home,” Laws said.
Before Ms. Strickland’s brother gave his statement, her son, Zion, tried to offer one to the judge but was too distraught to do so.
Morris said all of her daughter’s children have been traumatized, except for the youngest, who was 2 and “doesn’t remember her at all. She only has pictures of her mother.”
During her statement, Morris showed photos of her daughter, her birth certificate, her Danville High School diploma, her obituary and a newspaper clipping on the discovery of the bodies to everyone in the courtroom, later explaining, “I wanted them to know Zarra was a human being.”
Morris said her daughter worked two jobs to support her children.
“She had a heart that was so huge ... and the biggest smile,” Morris said. “She was just a blessing to everyone she met.”
“My mother helped you and Tammy financially, and this is the return she gets?” she asked Torres, who did not look away. “Why did this even take place? ... Did you, Mr. Torres, even stop to think about your own family? The hurt that you have caused them?”
After the hearing, she and Cooper said they were pleased with the sentence.
“We still have the pain,” Cooper said. “The pain doesn’t get any better, but God gives you the strength to deal with it differently now.”