The trial of a South Florida man accused of raping and killing his adoptive mother began on Monday.
Gerard A. Lopes, 23, is charged with premeditated murder in the death of 43-year-old Natalie Belmonte, whose bludgeoned body was found in a marsh near their Pembroke Pines home in July 2011.
Prosecutors claim Lopes, who has pleaded not guilty, sexually assaulted his adoptive mother before killing her. In a hearing held last week, state prosecutors sought approval to introduce DNA evidence they say shows the motive was sexual assault.
An autopsy showed that semen found in Belmonte matched Lopes’ DNA, but Lopes’ attorneys argue it's not relevant because the sexual relationship was consensual.
During that hearing, the state called a DNA expert, Dr. Martin Tracey, to the stand. Tracey testified the level of integrity of the DNA found shows the semen was deposited at the time of the murder.
"We know from other kinds of studies that I'm familiar with and teach at the university, the survival time for semen is about 3 to 5 days,” Tracey said.
But during opening statements on Monday, the prosecutor didn't introduce that argument.
Before the trial began, the lead detective in the case told the judge he overheard a jail conversation between Lopes and one of his attorneys, where Lopes allegedly said that he was going to say it was a consensual sexual relationship.
That attorney, Samantha Epstein, testified on Monday that "he asked questions such as, 'So they have to prove that it wasn't consensual?' — which is not at all the same as, 'I am going to say it was consensual.'"
Prosecutor Adriana Alcalde-Padron said he "strangled her, beat her, killed her and threw her away with no panties."
Police said security video from a neighbor’s house shows Belmonte and Lopes, who was 21 at the time of his 2011 arrest, leaving in the same car and stopping at a Walgreens before heading to a party.
The car returns with both individuals around 2:48 a.m. A short time later, Lopes is seen dragging a bag across the driveway and loading bags into the trunk. Belmonte's body would be found three days later near their Pembroke Pines home.
During last week's hearing, prosecutors called Belmonte's sister Michaela Teixeira to the stand and asked point blank about the possibility of a consensual sexual relationship.
"There's absolutely no way she had a consensual sexual relationship with her son,” she said.
Broward Circuit Judge Matthew Destry had ordered two prerequisites. If the state can establish a sexual relationship has serious negative consequences on Lopes, and secondly that the semen was deposited at or near the time of death, he'll admit the evidence. He also warned that if the state presents the argument into opening statements but fails to prove relevance, he'll grant a mistrial.
Belmonte's daughter Brianna said her mother treated Lopes "like a son."
Defense attorney Jose Reyes said, "There is no evidence of ill will."
Lopes' clothing was found in a dumpster with Belmonte's blood on it.
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