Defense attorneys frequently bring up an accused killer's beleaguered childhood, hoping to soften up a judge or jury and secure a more lenient sentence. But even before Antolin Garcia-Torres is tried next year in the killing of 15-year-old Sierra LaMar, his dysfunctional family background surfaced Wednesday in a highly unusual way -- during his father's trial on child molestation charges.

Genaro Garcia Fernandez, 51, is charged in Santa Clara County Superior Court with 18 sex crimes against two female relatives. Prosecutors allege he first fondled the primary victim when she was 4 years old and began raping her periodically when she was just 7 -- in the same small San Martin home where his son, Garcia-Torres, grew up.

If Fernandez is convicted, he will spend the rest of his life in prison. Garcia-Torres, 21, is also facing a life sentence. Prosecutors allege he kidnapped and killed LaMar, who disappeared from Morgan Hill on March 16. Her body has never been found. But her DNA was in Garcia-Torres' car.

The jury of 10 women and two men in Fernandez's trial will not be told of his connection to the accused killer. Garcia-Torres' father's history also will not figure in the son's trial, though it may come up during sentencing if he is convicted of killing LaMar.

Garcia-Torres' family background may ultimately be seen as grounds for sympathy or merely as the pathological root of his suspected criminality. But his father's case offers a glimpse into what life was like in the family home where Garcia-Torres was raised.

'Broke cycle'

According to court documents, Fernandez was convicted during the 1980s of vehicular manslaughter while under the influence of alcohol. It was unclear Wednesday how much time he served in prison away from his family.

The female relative who claims Fernandez molested her for years came forward last summer, about 11 months before Garcia-Torres was arrested on suspicion of killing the Morgan Hill teen. The molestation charges against Fernandez were also filed well before his son was arrested.

In a powerful 20-minute opening statement, prosecutor Murat Ozgur said the young woman reported the abuse to protect her own children after living for years with an unbearable secret that poisoned her childhood.

"She decided this secret could no longer be kept," he said. "She broke the cycle."

Ozgur said Fernandez eventually apologized to the young woman in a phone call police recorded and also in a letter. But Ozgur said it wasn't a true apology.

"He explained, she wanted it, she liked it," Ozgur told an attentive jury of 10 women and two men. "He claimed he didn't take her virginity."

According to the prosecutor's translation of the letter Fernandez wrote in Spanish, Garcia-Torres' father also said, "You know we did have sex, but it was for the pleasure of the two."

Defense attorney Thompson Sharkey reserved his opening statement until after the prosecutor presents his case. His client, dressed in a baggy black suit and bearing a stubbly mustache, spent much of the day hunched over, avoiding the eyes of the witnesses, including his wife and accusers.

Blocked the door

But the 5-feet-4-inch Fernandez, according to the witnesses, ruled his house with an iron hand.

"He hit me," his wife Laura Torres tearfully testified, "a lot."

Speaking in a monotone that belied the gravity of her words, the second accuser said she once saw Fernandez whip the other victim with a "cord." She also said the primary victim would basically barricade her bedroom by pulling out the drawers of a bureau to block the entryway.

When she was 5 years old, the primary victim first reported that Fernandez had been touching her inappropriately.

"When I confronted her father, he said she had been swinging outside on the swing and maybe just had a rash," on her bottom, Torres testified.

But she remained mistrustful, recalling one incident when she came home to a terrified little girl. Fernandez's wife said she was so suspicious, she finally took out a figurine of Christ and asked her husband to speak the truth.

"He swore to me by Christ and his mother he had never touched her," Torres said.

But her worries didn't disappear entirely, especially after her husband became inexplicably enraged when the accuser -- by then a teenager -- went out on a date.

When Torres tried to reassure him it was normal, "He would tell me what I wanted was for her to be a whore like I was.''

Contact Tracey Kaplan at 408-278-3482.