Nov. 22, 2013 at 8:50 AM ET
A psychology professor from Switzerland is behind bars after rejecting a plea deal involving the murder of the man she says raped her nearly two decades ago.
Authorities claim Norma Patricia Esparza, 39, played a role in what they claim was a revenge killing of her alleged rapist while she was a college student.
Esparza, now a professor in Geneva, Switzerland, faces charges for the 1995 murder of Gonzalo Ramirez, whose brutally beaten body was found outside an auto repair shop in Orange County, Calif. Three others have also been charged.
Esparza claims that her boyfriend at the time, along with several of his friends, tracked down Ramirez and killed him after she told him about being raped in her California dorm room. She claims she was forced to go along that evening, but didn’t witness the actual assault.
“I had no control. I had no way to stop a mob or a group of people,” she told reporters earlier this week.
Esparza was arrested last year while visiting the United States for a conference. She had been free on bail while cooperating with prosecutors. She helped lead investigators to the other suspects in the case, all of whom have pleaded not guilty.
Prosecutors offered Esparza a three-year sentence in exchange for a guilty plea to involuntary manslaughter, but she declined. She was taken into custody on Thursday after a California judge revoked her bail.
“She’s not a victim on this case; she’s a defendant on this case,” said Susan Kang Schroeder, chief of staff for the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.
Esparza now faces a murder trial that could result in a life sentence.
A Mexican immigrant who grew up in the United States, Esparza received her doctorate in psychology and now is a married mother, living as an assistant professor of psychology and counseling at Webster University in Switzerland.
She and her husband insist investigators never targeted Esparza and have produced a detective's email saying that she was neither a suspect nor a “person of interest.”
“If the prosecutor thought she was a murderer, why would they release her on reachable bail? Why would they give her her passport?” Esparza’s husband, Jorge Mancillas, told TODAY.
NBC legal analyst Lisa Bloom said on TODAY Friday that the email may not carry much weight with a jury.
“Police can and do lie to people to get them to confess, to get them to give statements,” she said Friday on TODAY. “Anything you say can and will be used against you, regardless of what the police tell you.”
Bloom suspects that prosecutors will push hard for one of the four defendants in the case to flip and ultimately testify against the others.
She also said it’s difficult to assess the plea deal authorities offered Esparza.
“Three years in prison is a long time if she’s innocent, but if she’s guilty of conspiring to commit murder, then that’s a sweet deal for her,” she said.