Day one of Taos murder trial sets stage, leaves questions

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A man accused of shooting and killing a 23-year-old woman at a gas station in Taos last year appeared for day one of a first-degree murder trial in Taos District Court Tuesday (May 15).

Brandon Lopez, 25, of Ranchos de Taos stands accused of shooting Destiny Valdez at the Shell gas station on Paseo del Cañon East Feb. 3, 2017. He entered the courtroom on Tuesday around 9 a.m., taking a seat beside his defense attorney, George Harrison.

Steven Romero, a prosecutor with the 8th Judicial District Attorney's Office, represented the state on the case.

Throughout the trial, which is tentatively scheduled to conclude on Thursday (May 17), the pair of litigators are expected to argue over details of an alleged altercation between Lopez and one of four other occupants of the vehicle Valdez was riding in just prior to the shooting.

Romero called on New Mexico State Police Agent Jesse Whitaker as the first witness. Whitaker provided commentary while the courtroom listened to a recording of an interview police had conducted with Lopez after the shooting.

Asked for his impressions of the playback, Whitaker said Lopez did not seem to express remorse, even after learning that Valdez had been seriously wounded in the shooting. He noted that the defendant had asked first about what was going to happen to him, specifically the circumstances of his incarceration, before inquiring about the victim's condition.

The state also called on three people who were in the vehicle when Valdez was shot: 17-year-old Angelina Muniz; her sister, 15-year-old Dominique Martinez; and the driver of the vehicle, Peter Martinez, who is currently under indictment by the 8th Judicial District Attorney's Office for a felony charge.

All three witnesses testified while viewing video of the incident captured by surveillance cameras outside the gas station.

The footage shows Lopez arriving first in a gray sedan, which he parks at the gas pumps. Peter Martinez arrives second, driving a white Pontiac Grand Am occupied by Valdez and the three other passengers. Lopez can be seen approaching the vehicle when it arrives, leaning in the driver-side window and speaking with someone – identified by witnesses as Martinez. After the exchange, Martinez pulls into a parking spot in front of the gas station, gets out of the vehicle and goes inside the store.

According to Muniz and her sister, another passenger in the vehicle, identified as Nathaniel Hise, can be seen taunting Lopez, who is then seen approaching the car aggressively. Following an exchange that is only partly visible on camera, someone appears to strike Lopez, who recoils and then retreats; the sisters said Hise delivered the blow.

A few seconds pass before Martinez comes out of the store and returns to the vehicle. He gestures at Lopez as Martinez gets behind the wheel. Lopez, obscured under an array of lights above the gas pumps, then appears to extend his arm and fire a weapon at the vehicle.

Following his arrest later that night, Lopez claimed that Hise had threatened to kill him with a knife during the preceeding altercation. While none of the witnesses in the vehicle said they saw such a threat, Harrison questioned their testimony during cross-examinations, suggesting the possibility that their field of view from within Grand Am might have been limited.

The state also called Taos Police Officers Luke Martinez and Austin Barnes to testify on Tuesday.

The night of the shooting, Martinez said he responded to a residence on State Highway 518, where New Mexico State Police Officers and Taos County Sheriff's Deputies arrested Lopez hours after he had allegedly pulled the trigger at the gas station.

Barnes said he had responded to the site of the shooting and recovered eight shell casings from around the gas pump where Lopez had been parked. He also found bullet slugs embedded in the wall of the station. During a cross examination, Harrison suggested that Barne's testimony regarding the number of shell casings was inconsistent with other witness testimony, which suggested that Lopez may have fired only three shots.

Romero also called on a woman who was at the gas station at the time of the shooting. During her testimony, she described witnessing an argument between Lopez and another man upon her arrival in the parking lot, and then exiting the store to hear the sound of gunfire and see a man firing a weapon. During her testimony Tuesday, she identified Lopez in the courtroom as the shooter.

Backus approved several photographs presented by the state as evidence. The images show Lopez's vehicle and Martinez's vehicle, including blood, hair, brain matter and at least one spent slug found inside on its backseat, where Valdez had been sitting when she sustained the fatal bullet wound.

Lopez's trial resumes tomorrow morning (May 16) at 9 a.m. in Taos District Court, courtroom A, before Judge Sarah Backus.

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