Joshua Sudock/The Orange County Register/Zuma
Howard Breuer
February 27, 2014 08:10 AM

A psychology professor who has consulted for the World Health Organization was ordered Wednesday to stand trial in California for the murder of a man who she says raped her in 1995 when she was in college.

After a brief preliminary hearing, an Orange County Superior Court judge ordered Norma Patricia Esparza, 39, to stand trial on a charge of murder during the commission of a kidnapping. Her trial date could be set when she returns to court March 11, and if she is convicted, she could be sent to prison for life.

Esparza says that, like others involved in the case who are still alive, she was offered a much shorter sentence in exchange for a guilty plea to voluntary manslaughter. “They’re asking me to plead guilty,” she said in a press conference in November. “It’s essentially something that I cannot accept because it would essentially be a lie.”

On April 16, 1995, the body of Gonzalo Ramirez, 24, of Riverside, Calif., was discovered along the shoulder of a freeway, wrapped in green towels. He died from multiple blows from a meat cleaver.

At the time, Esparza told homicide detectives about the rape, but nothing else.

But after a witness told police in 2010 that Esparza had pointed out Ramirez to Gianni Van – an ex-boyfriend – when they were at a bar, police asked Esparza to contact them for further questioning.

Esparza, who was living in France with her husband and daughter and teaching at a Swiss university, refused. So, in 2012, when investigators learned that she was traveling to St. Louis for a conference, they arrested her.

She then told prosecutors and a grand jury that she was there when Ramirez was kidnapped, and that she was ordered to look at him while he was still alive – but that she tried to deter the others from harming Ramirez.

“I was trapped. I was outnumbered by four older and bigger people,” Esparza wrote on a blog. “I was miles away from home, late at night in a non-residential area. I had no car and I didn’t even know how to drive. I feared for my life and felt that the only thing I could do was submit.”

Several groups are backing Esparza, saying she’s a wonderful person who shouldn’t be prosecuted.

“This is a clear case of a victim on trial, and this unjust persecution needs to end,” Danielle Dirks, a criminologist involved in the Set Patricia Free campaign, told the Orange County Register. The campaign claims more than 5,000 supporters.

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