LIMA, Peru — After Joran van der Sloot pleaded guilty Wednesday to the 2010 murder of a Peruvian woman he met at a Lima casino, his lawyer argued that the killing was tragically triggered by fallout from the very event that originally brought his client notoriety.
The “persecution” suffered by Van der Sloot after the unsolved disappearance of U.S. teenager Natalee Holloway five years earlier scarred him psychologically with a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder, defense attorney Jose Jimenez told the three female judges who are to sentence his client Friday.
The young Dutchman has been the prime suspect in the Holloway case since she disappeared on Aruba five years to the day before the killing of the 21-year-old Peruvian woman, business student Stephany Flores.
With the evidence against him in the Peru killing strong, Van der Sloot entered a guilty plea Wednesday at his lawyer’s urging, hoping for a reduced sentence.
“I truly am sorry for this act. I feel very bad,” the 24-year-old defendant said, showing no emotion in a brief admission of guilt in fractured Spanish. He did not use the Dutch translator provided for the proceeding.
Prosecutors are asking for a 30-year prison sentence under charges that carry a 15-year minimum.
Van der Sloot, physically imposing at well over six feet tall, bowed his head minutes later as his lawyer argued that he killed Flores in a “severe emotional reaction to extreme psychological trauma” related to the Holloway disappearance, “something he says he never did and for which no evidence at all exists.”
Van der Sloot did not exhibit signs of remorse, and he briefly smiled while conferring with Jimenez before leaving the courtroom.
The judges have 48 hours to render a sentence and the presiding magistrate, Victoria Montoya, said the panel would reconvene Friday to do so.
Van der Sloot’s trial opened last week but was adjourned until Wednesday after he asked for more time to decide how to plead. He said then that he did not accept the aggravated murder charges the prosecution sought.
Van der Sloot, who wore faded jeans and an untucked light-blue button-down shirt, had confessed to the May 30, 2010, killing long ago.
He told police shortly after the murder that he killed Flores in a fit of rage after she discovered his connection to the disappearance of Holloway on his laptop while they played poker online.
The defense says it was manslaughter, for which the minimum sentence is 5 years.
Police forensic experts disputed that claim and a lawyer for the victim’s prominent family contends Van der Sloot killed Flores in order to rob her.
Prosecutors charged him with first-degree murder and theft.
The prosecution maintained Van der Sloot killed Flores with “ferocity” and “cruelty,” concealing the crime and fleeing to Chile, where he was caught two days after Flores’ rotting body was found.
He took more than $200 in cash plus credit cards from the victim and made his initial getaway in her car, leaving it in a different part of Lima, prosecutors say.
“Van der Sloot is far too cold and calculating,” Peru’s chief homicide detective at the time, Miguel Canlla, told The Associated Press shortly after the killing.
The coroner’s report said the killer elbowed Flores in the face, thrusting her against a wall and drawing blood.
“She begins to defend herself and he starts beating her and then grabs her by the neck and strangles her,” Canlla said. “He takes off his shirt and then asphyxiates her (with it).”
The length of the Van der Sloot’s sentence is at the judges’ discretion, said court officials and a leading Peruvian criminal attorney, Luis Lamas.
In Peru, convicts can become eligible for parole after serving half their sentences if they work or study.
The attorney for the family of the victim, Edwar Alvarez, has argued for life in prison and deemed a sentence reduction unacceptable.
“In the court record, this man has submitted to psychological examinations and they have concluded that he is a psychopathic person,” he told reporters. “What judge would give a psychopath a penal benefit?”
The victim’s father, circus impresario and former race car driver Ricardo Flores, attended the opening of the trial but not Wednesday’s hearing.
Reached by phone before Van der Sloot’s plea, he said he could not bear to even watch the proceedings on TV.
“This matter hurts us,” he told The Associated Press.
Ricardo Flores told the AP on Friday that the family, as a party to the trial, had planned to introduce testimony from friends of his daughter and casino employees proving that she won $10,000 there and that Van der Sloot had learned of it. He said the casino had videotape of his daughter cashing in the chips.
Video taken at the Atlantic City Casino, where the victim met Van der Sloot, shows the two leaving together, and closed-circuit images from the downmarket TAC Hotel shows the pair entering his room together and Van der Sloot leaving alone hours later, bags packed.
To hide the crime after killing Flores, Van der Sloot left the hotel, bought two cups of coffee, and asked a hotel employee to open his room when he returned, prosecutor Jose Santiesteban said in the trial’s opening argument.
Van der Sloot continues to be dogged by the case of Holloway, a 19-year-old from Mountain Brook, Alabama, disappeared during a high school graduation trip in 2005 to the Dutch Caribbean island of Aruba, where Van der Sloot grew up.
She was last seen leaving a nightclub with him. Her body has never been found.
The case received a storm of media attention and the tall, garrulous Dutchman became a staple of true-crime TV shows. In several interviews, he described himself as a pathological liar, and in one clandestinely taped conversation he told a Dutch TV reporter he was involved in Holloway’s disappearance.
Van der Sloot’s trip to Lima may have been funded by continued fallout from that case.
U.S. officials, who indicted him on extortion and fraud charges days after the Flores killing, say Van der Sloot had extorted $25,000 from Holloway’s mother, Beth Holloway Twitty, by offering to lead her attorney, John Q. Kelly, to Holloway’s body in Aruba.
After meeting with Kelly there, without delivering on his offer, Van der Sloot flew to Lima on May 14, 2010, they say. Two weeks later, Flores was killed.
Ricardo Flores said he doesn’t believe Van der Sloot is contrite over his daughter’s death and wants the defendant to experience greater deprivation.
That could include being extradited to the United States to stand trial there once he’s been sentenced in Peru.
In a statement Wednesday, Kelly said that after Van der Sloot is sentenced “we anticipate that U.S. authorities will move quickly to bring him to Alabama to face pending federal charges, and to answer for his past conduct in Aruba.”
Peru’s Foreign Ministry says it has no U.S. extradition request for Van der Sloot.
U.S. authorities have requested his arrest through Interpol “should he be released on the charges there” so he could be brought to Alabama, for trial, said Peggy Sanford, a spokeswoman the U. S. Attorney’s office in Birmingham, Alabama.
No members of Van der Sloot’s family have attended the trial.
His lawyer said his client’s mother, Anita, did not want the media attention. The defendant’s father, a prominent lawyer, died of a heart attack at age 57 in February 2010.
Associated Press writers Carla Salazar, Martin Villena and Franklin Briceno contributed to this report.