Norma would fight to clear her name in court…and to prove she had nothing to do with the death of the man she claimed raped her.


Norma Esparza had worked hard all her life. She was born in El Taray, a tiny village in the swelteringly hot southern part of Mexico. A village where there were no paved streets, no running water…and no opportunities.

But, when Norma was 5, she’d moved with her mum to the USA. And, while her mum struggled to make ends meet with cleaning and factory jobs, Norma read, studied, applied herself.

It paid off. She won a scholarship to the Phillips Exeter Academy, a boarding school in New Hampshire. And, from there, she was accepted to study a degree at Pomona College in California.

On 25 March 1995, Norma was in her second year there. She was 20 years old. One night, she went out for a few drinks with her college mates. In the bar, she got chatting to Gonzalo Ramirez, and accepted a lift home from him.

Norma didn’t fear Gonzalo. But she should have – because, according to her, he raped her near her student accommodation.

Norma panicked. ‘I don’t think I was thinking at that time,’ she said years later. ‘I felt ashamed, guilty. I didn’t want to come forward because I didn’t want my family to know.’

There was one person she did tell, though – her boyfriend Gianni Van.

But, if she’d been hoping for emotional support, Norma was to be disappointed.

Gianni told her that the rape meant she’d been dishonoured.

He took her to the bar where she’d met Gonzalo, made her point him out.

‘He was yelling at me to point at the rapist,’ Norma would later remember.

Gonzalo Ramirez

Gonzalo Ramirez

With Norma in his van, Gianni and some friends followed Gonzalo when he left the bar that evening. They rammed Gonzalo’s car off the road.

‘I was expecting a confrontation in a public place,’ Norma said. ‘I thought he’d rough Gonzalo up, so he wouldn’t rape anyone else.’

But Gianni went further than that – much further.

He took Gonzalo to the back room of a shop owned by someone he knew. There, he tied him up and beat him.

The next day, Gonzalo Ramirez’ body was found dumped by a roadside. He’d been hacked to death with a meat cleaver, his skull cracked open, his fingers nearly severed.

Although she hadn’t actually seen the murder, Norma must have known Gianni was instrumental in his killing. The police were sure of it, too.

But then Gianni and Norma got married. Because of ‘spousal privilege’, the husband and wife couldn’t testify against each other… And without their testimonies, the police didn’t think they’d get a conviction.

The case was dropped.

Norma got on with her life, becoming a professor of clinical psychology. In 2004, she divorced Gianni Van and moved to Switzerland, where she was offered a teaching job at a university.

At last, Norma could be happy. She married again, and, in 2009, had a little girl. But then the police found out about the divorce from Gianni.

Norma Esparza

Norma Esparza

Finally, they could get the testimony they needed – and, possibly, a conviction.

It was eight years before Norma Patricia Esparza travelled again to the USA. But, when she did, the police were waiting for her.

She was arrested as soon as she landed. And the first thing investigators wanted to know was why she’d married Gianni.

‘I was intimidated by him,’ she said. ‘He scared me.’ She’d been trapped.

Norma Esparza was charged with ‘special circumstances’ murder – a charge introduced only in California.

Norma may not have killed Gonzalo Ramirez herself, but she had apparently allowed it to happen by pointing him out in that bar.

She refused a plea deal.

Gonzalo had raped her, she said, but she denied having anything to do with his death. It was Gianni Van who’d wanted revenge on Gonzalo for ‘dishonouring’ his girlfriend. Norma had just wanted the whole thing to go away.

Gianni Van (Photo: PA Photos)

Gianni Van (Photo: PA Photos)

And then, just before the case was due to go to trial, Norma changed her mind.

If she were found guilty of murder, even in special circumstances, she’d be facing a long prison sentence. She’d miss out on being a mum to her daughter.

The thought of not being there for her little girl was enough for Norma to change her plea.

In July this year, at Orange County Superior Court, Norma Esparza, 41, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter.

But, because she’d refused the first plea deal, she was given double the sentence originally offered to her. Six years.

Gianni Van pleaded not guilty, but was convicted of murder. He was given a life sentence without possibility of parole.

Others involved in the crime were also convicted.

As Esparza was led away from the court in handcuffs after sentencing, she turned to her husband.

‘Take care of our daughter,’ she cried. ‘Shield her from pain.’

There’s a certain type of pain Norma Esparza knows a lot about… The pain of regret.