Trial opens in 1995 California killing; professor at center of case expected to testify

Attorneys for two sides agree that in April 1995, a 24-year-old man who had been pointed out by a Southern California college student as her rapist had his truck rear-ended before he was kidnapped, brutally beaten and killed.

Where they differ is on the role of now-45-year-old Gianni Van in the murder of Gonzalo Ramirez, whose blindfolded, bloodied body was found on the side of a road.

At the opening of his trial Wednesday, prosecutors said Van was enraged after his ex-girlfriend Norma Patricia Esparza told him Ramirez had raped her and he must be held responsible for the attack. She's expected to testify Thursday.

Van's lawyer said his client had no knowledge of the plan to harm Ramirez and was threatened that he would suffer a similar fate if he snitched on a friend and friend's employee who carried out the killing.

The case has drawn international attention since Esparza — who went on to become a psychology professor and moved to France — was arrested in 2012, provoking an outcry from sexual assault victim advocates who say the case sends a chilling message to rape survivors.

During opening statements, Senior Deputy District Attorney Mike Murray showed graphic photos of Ramirez's blindfolded, mangled body lying on the side of the road in a pool of blood.

"Gonzalo Ramirez was targeted, and he was targeted by somebody who was going to make sure he suffered," Murray said. "Whether Norma Esparza was sexually assaulted or not, for our purposes today, doesn't matter. What matters is she told the defendant that."

Van is charged with murder during the commission of a kidnapping. If convicted, he could get life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Van's lawyer, Jeremy Dolnick, said his client knew nothing of the plans to kidnap or kill Ramirez but was shown his severely beaten body strung up by chains at his friend's auto transmission shop and warned he would face the same fate if he ever snitched.

"He didn't ask anyone to kill anyone. He never had homicidal thoughts of revenge," Dolnick told jurors, adding that Van had confided in his friend about Esparza's rape and the friend and friend's employee took matters into their own hands.

Esparza, 40, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in an agreement with prosecutors last year. She is expected to receive a six-year sentence in exchange for testifying at the trials of Van and another defendant. A fourth defendant also pleaded guilty in a deal with prosecutors.