Defense hits fingernail DNA at start of Little Rock murder trial

A speck of DNA found under a dead woman's fingernail does not make Jose Martin Gonzales the one who strangled her, the Little Rock man's lawyer told a Pulaski County jury on Tuesday.

"All they've got is some DNA ... they can't fully identify," attorney Bobby Digby said.

The genetic material is so ephemeral that it's more likely that it got there because Naomi Estrada and Gonzales were close, both romantically and physically, for some time, Digby said at the opening of Estrada's capital-murder trial.

Digby warned jurors that Estrada's family firmly believes Gonzales killed her, but he urged the eight women and four men not to be swayed by the family's certainty because there's very little evidence -- and no motive -- to prove it.

He said prosecutors will try to slander Gonzales in their efforts to send him to prison for life, but that their case against him is based on just two things.

"They dated, and she's dead," he said. "That's not enough evidence to convict anybody."

The naked body of the 36-year-old Little Rock mother of two was found in July 2017, covered in plastic under a cardboard box, in the basement of the family home at 46 Westmont Circle. The remains were found about 30 hours after a mysterious late-night phone call had drawn her from the house, authorities said.

"The state wants you to believe he murdered his girlfriend, hides her in the basement and then just hangs out," Digby told jurors.

Proceedings before Circuit Judge Barry Sims resume at 9 a.m. today with Dorcus Estrada, the victim's sister, who found the body, scheduled to testify.

Prosecutors Jeanna Sherrill and Melissa Brown presented jurors with a different version of the relationship between Gonzales and the victim. Prosecutors said her family knew Gonzales, not as a boyfriend, but as a homeless man the devoutly Christian woman had befriended a few weeks earlier, moved by finding Gonzales shoeless with heavily blistered feet.

They told jurors that DNA and Naomi Estrada's injuries, including the ones on her hands, show she fought for her life as Gonzales choked her to death, a job he began with a belt, then finished with his hands.

Sherrill said Gonzales has been known to choke women unconscious before.

Estrada "had a lot to live for with a 19-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old boy," the prosecutor said. "She didn't go easy."

Her family never saw Estrada alive after she left the home that night, her mother testified Tuesday. But Jessieca Estrada, 62, said she did hear from her daughter again in a phone call, about 11 hours later, promising to pick Jessieca Estrada up from work that day and describing a plan -- an out-of-character move -- to go hiking with someone, her mother told jurors.

Naomi never went to get her, Jessieca Estrada testified.

Gonzales was the first person she encountered when she got home, she said. He told her Naomi was asleep in bed with a stomachache, the woman said.

But when she went to check on her daughter, all she found was a pile of pillows under a sheet, shaped to give the impression that her daughter was in the bed.

When she confronted Gonzales, she testified, he broke down babbling and crying, saying something about a walk in the woods with the woman and mentioning sex. Gonzales told her Naomi Estrada had just walked out with some man to buy marijuana and then Gonzales himself left, taking the family car, she testified.

Police arrested Gonzales four days later in North Little Rock, and the Texas native has been jailed ever since.

His lawyers have not said whether he will testify. If Gonzales takes the stand, he could open himself up to questions about his criminal record.

Court records show Gonzales was on parole for armed robbery in Little Rock when Estrada was killed, and he has since been charged with attacking a deputy while in jail.

Gonzales also did prison time in Texas on a felony charge of injury to a child. Court records show that when Gonzales was 17 and living in Houston, Texas, in January 1998, he was part of a group that attacked and beat a 13-year-old boy with a brick while stealing his watch and trying to take his ring.

Metro on 12/05/2018

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