Updated March 17 at 5 p.m.
Brandon Lopez, a 23-year-old Ranchos de Taos man, pleaded not guilty yesterday to eight felony counts and one petty misdemeanor in the alleged shooting death of 23-year-old Destiny Valdez.
Lopez stands accused of firing the bullet that fatally wounded Valdez at the bypass Shell gas station in Taos the night of Feb. 3. Valdez was placed on life support following the incident and died at University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque Feb. 7.
Lopez is charged with first-degree murder, a capital felony; shooting at or from a motor vehicle (resulting in great bodily harm), a second-degree felony; aggravated battery (with a deadly weapon, resulting in great bodily harm or death), a third-degree felony; four counts of aggravated assault (use of a deadly weapon), a fourth-degree felony; tampering with evidence, a third- or fourth-degree felony; and criminal damage to property (over $1,000), a fourth-degree felony.
If convicted, Lopez faces a maximum penalty of life imprisonment without parole. New Mexico abolished the death penalty in 2009, and as such, a first-degree murder conviction cannot be penalized by death.
According to court documents released today (March 17), George A. Harrison, an attorney based out of Las Cruces, served as counsel for the defendant. Deputy District Attorney Meghan T. Hasser represented the state of New Mexico.
Harrison entered a plea of “not guilty” on behalf of the defendant.
District Court Judge Sarah Backus determined that “no bond” would be set for the defendant, ensuring Lopez will remain incarcerated in the Taos County Adult Detention Center as the case is processed.
The time of this week’s arraignment, originally scheduled for 1:45 p.m., was suddenly rescheduled for 11 a.m. due to an unspecified "emergency" on the part of Backus, according to the judge's assistant.
The original time had been posted to court calendars and official court records for more than one week. The change was made without notice to the public, leaving several parties – including some of Valdez's friends and family members – out of the loop.
Dion Romero, 41, a close friend of Valdez's godmother, said he, along with other "Justice for Destiny" supporters, had planned to picket outside the courthouse during the hearing. Romero expressed frustration due to the rescheduling snafu.
“We called Meghan Hasser. She’s the senior trial attorney with the DA’s office,” Romero said. “She put in a motion for a ‘no bond,’ which passed, so the [arraignment] was good for [Valdez’s] family, but we wanted to be there.”
Romero said that Hasser told him she was also provided with little notice of the scheduling change.
“She found out 10 minutes before the actual hearing took place,” Romero said. A reporter was unable to reach Hasser to confirm the short notice.
Fellow supporters of the victim's family, including Valdez’s godmother, Michelle Rodarte, gathered following the hearing on the neighboring sidewalk outside Super Save to show their support.
One sign read, “Honk 4 Justice – Destiny Valdez” and included photos of the victim, who left behind a young child following her death.
Romero commented that he believed the rescheduling may have been a deliberate effort on the part of the court to avoid a confrontation between members of the victim's family and those of the defendant.
“The [defendant's] family was speaking today that they probably moved it because they were in fear of retaliation,” he said.
A jury trial is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 16 at 9 a.m.
For more on this story, read our past coverage and check taosnews.com for updates.