Sporting a severe crew cut, Joran van der Sloot, 24 years old and more than six feet tall, sauntered into a special courtroom in Peru's largest prison, Lurigancho, east of the capital, Lima. The Dutch national quickly peeled off a blue blazer and the bullet-proof vest provided by the police. If the court would have allowed it, he'd probably have done away with a long-sleeve gray shirt as well to get comfortable in the sweltering heat of southern hemisphere summer. As it turned out, he wouldn't be sweating for long on Friday.
Already infamous as the main suspect in the disappearance and likely death of the young American Natalee Holloway in Aruba on May 30, 2005, van der Sloot was in court for the first day of his long-delayed trial for the murder of a Peruvian woman on the exact same day in 2010.
He fidgeted in his seat, fanning himself and tapping his jeans-clad leg while the court reporter read through a long list of legal nuts and bolts. He seemed to nod off a few times, slouching in his seat to the consternation of Judge Victoria Montoya. She called on him to stand, reminding him that he was in a court of law and needed to respect protocol. He listened to most of the proceedings in Spanish, turning only once to a court-appointed translator for her to clarify a point for him in Dutch. The translator provided the only bit of levity in the courtroom, stunning the judge when she responded "no" to the question, "Do you believe in God?" It is a question put before anyone who has a role in a trial in deeply Catholic Peru.
That humorous aside stood in stark contrast to what van der Sloot faces for the murder of Stephany Flores: the possibility of decades behind bars and the imposition of fines of approximately $75,000. The prosecution wants van der Sloot found guilty of first degree murder, which carries a maximum sentence of 30 years with the possibility of parole. The prosecution had initially wanted a different charge aggravated robbery with death which could impose a life sentence, but the court rejected the request last November.On Friday, after about an hour in court, van der Sloot finally appeared ready to enter his plea before Judge Montoya. "I would like to make a sincere confession, but I am not in agreement with the aggravating circumstance in the charge," he said calmly in Spanish. "Can I have some more time to think about it?"
Montoya postponed the trial until Jan. 11. If van der Sloot does enter a guilty plea, sentencing would be two days later on Friday the 13th. Van der Sloot's attorney, José Luis Jiménez, says Dutchman's defense is not about proving innocence, but trying to wrangle a lighter sentence than the 30 years requested by the prosecution. "Joran has never denied his involvement in Stephany Flores' death, but he disagrees with the charges formulated by the state," Jiménez told TIME outside Lurigancho.
Van der Sloot and his lawyer object to the "aggravating circumstances" in the first-degree murder charge and that Flores' death was accidental. The defense argument is that van der Sloot should be convicted on manslaughter charges, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years. It allows for parole after one-third of the sentence is served.
The prosecution maintains that the maximum sentence is justified, because the murder was premeditated and "cruelly and ferociously" carried out. One of the reasons for the premeditation argument is the fact that Holloway disappeared on May 30 and van der Sloot, the prosecutors alleged, marked the anniversary with a second murder.
Van der Sloot met Flores, 21, at a poker tournament in Lima the night before her murder. Her badly beaten, decomposing body was found in his hotel room two days later. The murder grabbed international attention because van der Sloot was already the only suspect in the and presumed death of 19-year old Holloway, who vanished in Aruba. He was detained twice in Aruba, but released because of lack of evidence. He was never charged with the murder because Holloway's body was never recovered.
The Flores case, on the other hand, is loaded with what seems to be a weight of evidence. Prosecutor Jose Santisteban told the court that van der Sloot and Flores fought after returning to his hotel room to play on-line poker. He said she received a message from someone who had been at the poker tournament, warning her of van der Sloot's alleged murder of Holloway. The prosecutor said that Flores had been brutally beaten and that van der Sloot strangled her with a bloody shirt. The police report from the murder scene at the Hotel Tac, a nondescript box next to a gas station, states that Flores' skull was fractured and she suffered significant blows to the face.
Jimenez argues van der Sloot did not set out to kill Flores. He also objects to the idea that the murder was somehow premeditated, because the two had just met. He said that if van der Sloot had planned the murder he also would have planned his escape, which he did not do. Van der Sloot hired a taxi to flee overland to neighboring Chile, 650 miles to the south. He was arrested there nearly a week after Flores' murder and sent back to Peru. He has been in prison since June 10, 2010.
Van der Sloot's could gamble and enter a "not guilty" plea on Jan. 11 in the hope that Montoya and the two other female judges hearing the case lean toward a manslaughter verdict. If he lets stand the charge as filed, he will automatically receive the 30-year sentence with the chance of parole in 10 years. He will have the right to appeal that sentence.
Peruvians outside the courtroom, fanning themselves for relief from the blazing sun and swirling dust, have already reached their own verdict. They want van der Sloot convicted to 30 years. One of the onlookers, Juan Osco, believes he may have had something to do with van der Sloot's decision to lean toward a guilty plea. Osco, a self-trained shaman from Puquio, in the southern highlands, had carried out a traditional ritual in front of the prison on Flores' behalf.
"I am not against Joran. I want him to have a fair trial and receive the sentence that he deserves. This is also what Stephany wants," he said while shaking incense over a poster-sized photo of van der Sloot that was covered with hot chili peppers and a wax effigy. A similar sized photo of Flores was surrounded by flowers, bright macaw feathers and statue of Saint Michael the Archangel, who, in the Catholic tradition, battles wickedness. Osco would probably be pleased that the verdict may just be handed down on Friday the 13th.