Incomplete autopsy reports and a former county pathologist who is now out of the country could push back the trial for those accused of killing Ana Lila Diaz DeCeja, attorneys said Tuesday.
The 26-year-old Planada resident's death garnered nationwide attention after Teresa Ceja Robles, 34, and Jose Augustine Velarde, 38, in December 2010 allegedly killed her and stole her then-2-month-old son, Anthony Ceja-Diaz.
A firm trial date for the couple cannot be set, however, until incomplete autopsy reports in the case are finished.
Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II, who's prosecuting the case with Deputy District Attorney Monika Saini, said the autopsy reports were handled by forensic pathologist Ann Bucholtz, who worked for the Merced County coroner's office until July 2011.
When Bucholtz's employment ended, however, DeCeja's autopsy reports -- along with several others -- still hadn't been completed, Morse said.
The county hired a new forensic pathologist, Mark Super, this year.
Still, Morse said, putting a pathologist on the stand who didn't conduct DeCeja's autopsy could pose some legal challenges -- and could be particularly problematic if Bucholtz isn't available for the defense to cross-examine.
Bucholtz is currently working in Canada, Morse said, and the prosecution has been trying to contact her to resolve the incomplete autopsy reports. "We're trying to secure her appearance," he said.
Morse said his office is studying a number of cases in his office where Bucholtz's testimony is crucial. Morse said there are at least "a dozen or so" such cases, although the DeCeja's murder case is "the most pressing."
As of now, Robles and Velarde are scheduled to be tried together, but they will have separate juries. Questionnaires for potential jurors are scheduled to be distributed Oct. 31 in Velarde’s case and Nov. 7 in Robles' case.
Morse said he’ll know within two weeks whether the trial will move forward as scheduled — or the issues associated with Buchotlz’s absence push trial until next year. "We're still moving pretty quickly for a murder trial, particularly one, like this one, with two defendants." he said.
Velarde is accused of strangling DeCeja. Authorities allege the couple planned to keep the baby as their own, after Velarde killed DeCeja.
DeCeja's body was burned beyond recognition and later found in an orchard by Merced County sheriff's deputies. Her baby was later found alive on the doorstep of a Le Grand home.
Two separate juries will hear the trial because of certain statements the defendants made implicating one another, Morse said. Velarde and Robles, who are husband and wife, face charges of murder, kidnapping, child abuse and making a false report to police. After their arrest, the couple at first denied killing DeCeja but confessed after further questioning, according to authorities.
If convicted, they each face a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Both remain in custody at the Merced County Jail.
City Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.