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Professor jailed after rejecting plea deal in U.S. murder case

By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A professor at a Swiss university accused of helping arrange the 1995 murder of a man who she says raped her when she was a college student in California was jailed on Thursday after prosecutors said she was no longer cooperating with them.

Norma Patricia Esparza, 39, was handcuffed and led away to jail after a hearing in Orange County Superior Court at which prosecutors said she had rejected a plea deal. Under the terms of that deal, murder charges filed against her in December 2012 would have been reduced to voluntary manslaughter.

"This case was filed over a year ago and the defendant has not pleaded guilty and she has not accepted an offer by the people for a reduced charge and lesser prison term," Orange County District Attorney's spokeswoman Farrah Emami said.

"Her two options are to change her plea and proceed that way or go to a jury trial," Emami said. "She has not pleaded guilty, so it's important she be treated the same as any other defendant."

Emami said Esparza, who was born in Mexico and lives in France with her husband and young daughter, was also considered a potential flight risk. She had been free on $300,000 bail for the past year because prosecutors had considered her a "cooperating defendant," Emami said.

Esparza, an assistant professor at Webster University in Geneva, is charged along with three other people in the April 16, 1995, murder of 25-year-old Gonzalo Ramirez in Irvine, California.

Esparza's co-defendants Gianni Anthony Van, 44, Shannon Ray Gries, 42, and Diane Tran, 45, are being held without bond in the case and are next due in court in January.

Esparza is accused of pointing out Ramirez to Van, Gries and Tran's late husband Kody Tran, who allegedly kidnapped and stabbed the victim to death. Kody Tran was killed during a shootout with police in July 2012.

Her attorney could not be reached for comment on Thursday afternoon but her husband, Jorge Mancillas, spoke to reporters outside court.

"The first thing my wife said after she was handcuffed was to please take care of our daughter and shield her from the pain of this experience," Mancillas told local City News Service following the hearing.

Mancillas told CNS that Esparza was raped by Ramirez in March 1995 when she was a 20-year-old student at Pomona College in Southern California and that Van, who was then her boyfriend, reacted angrily when he found out.

Esparza was arrested in 1996 in connection with Ramirez' death but prosecutors declined to press charges against her at the time.

Emami said that prosecutors were aware of Esparza's claims that she was raped by the victim but had not corroborated them.

"We just don't know," she said. "We understand that she has said that she was raped. That's information obviously that the jury will hear and consider. But the charge in this case is special circumstances murder."

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Ken Wills)

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