A jury could hear highly contested evidence of a possible motive in the disappearance of a two-year-old boy.
Jahi Turner vanished 15 years ago from South Park, and his remains have never been found.
But police pursued the case, and last year they arrested Turner’s step-father, Tieray Jones, who is now charged with murder and child abuse.
His trial is scheduled for late January 2018.
At a pre-trial hearing Wednesday, prosecutors revealed that DNA evidence found on Jahi’s pajama bottoms could be consistent with Jones’s semen.
Prosecutors argued that the jury should be informed of that finding, and be allowed to consider the possibility that Jahi was the victim of “some kind of sexual assault” by his step-father, and the possibility that Jones killed the boy to cover-up such an assault.
Prosecutors acknowledged that the DNA evidence does not confirm that the substance found on Jahi’s clothing was in fact semen, and that it could have been saliva or some other substance from Jones’ body.
The defense strongly objected to the possible use of that DNA evidence in the trial, describing it as extremely speculative and inflammatory.
Judge Joan Weber also voiced concerns about the introduction of those lab results at trial.
“I don’t want the jury to wildly speculate about things,” she told the lawyers.
“There is no physical evidence to support” a theory that Jones killed his step-son to cover-up a sex crime, Weber said. “This case should be left to the actual evidence. This is a very dangerous area.”
Weber scheduled another hearing on the admissibility of that DNA evidence. That hearing will be held several days before the scheduled start of the trial.
Jones is charged with one count of murder and one count of felony child abuse causing death, which both carry a 25-years-to-life sentence if convicted. Jones was arrested in North Carolina in 2016.
When the announcement of his arrest was made, San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said, "Jahi's disappearance rocked the community to its core 14 years ago. It's without a doubt one of the highest profile unsolved cases here in San Diego County."
Though new evidence has been uncovered in the case, authorities have not found Jahi's body or remains, police said.
On April 25, 2002, Jahi allegedly disappeared from a playground at 28th Street and Cedar Street in San Diego's South Park neighborhood. According to police, Jones told officers he was with the toddler at the park when he left to get a drink for Jahi. Jones said he returned 15 minutes later and Jahi was gone.
Officials say the last reported sighting of Jahi was April 22, 2002. A huge search for Jahi ensued, including a week-long police search of the Miramar Landfill, where authorities took the extreme measure of systematically raking through 5,000 tons of garbage.