A pretrial hearing set to decide whether the man charged with the murder of a popular Taos coffee shop owner last month would be released before trial was delayed on Thursday (Sept. 19) after the …
A pretrial hearing set to decide whether the man charged with the murder of a popular Taos coffee shop owner last month would be released before trial was delayed Thursday (Sept. 19 ) after the suspect's attorney said he needed additional time to review evidence shared by the state.
Alan Maestas, a private attorney based in Taos, made his case for an extension as he hefted a large white binder filled with documents state prosecutors have compiled to show that Gregg Steele, 51, should not be released.
A New Mexico State Police investigation has alleged that Steele was living on land adjacent to Larkin's early on the morning of Aug. 27, when he shot and killed the 63-year-old with a .45 caliber handgun. After finding blood in Steele's truck matching a sample of Larkin's DNA, they concluded the 51-year-old must have transported the body and hid it in a bush 1.5 miles away on Cuchilla Road in Llano Quemado, where it was found on Aug. 28.
"This is what they provided," Maestas said. "I got some of it on the night of the 17th. Most of it was on the morning of the 18th, and frankly, I’m not even halfway through it yet. I'm trying to figure out what’s in there."
After Steele agreed to waive a state rule requiring pretrial hearings to be held within five days, Taos District Court Judge Jeff McElroy delayed the hearing to next Wednesday (Sept. 25) at 2 p.m.
Several New Mexico State Police agents stood in the back of the courtroom and Taos County Sheriff's Deputies flanked Steele as he sat at the defendant's table. Judge McElroy agreed to extend subpeonas delivered to multiple witnesses who had also appeared in court on Thursday to testify.
An arrest warrant affidavit made public last week contained several interviews suggesting that Steele and Larkin had an ongoing dispute over the suspect's dogs crossing into Larkin's property and harassing his goats, one of which was found mauled to death the morning the coffee shop owner went missing.
Maestas raised concerns in court over "pretrial publicity" published in the Taos News and other media outlets based on information contained in the affidavit.
"The problem I’m having is that there appears to be – not necessarily a concerted effort – but Mr. Steel is being tried in the press and on social media," Maestas said. "Today’s newspaper starts at the very top with, 'Larkin murder suspect allegedly confesses.' "
The alleged confession was relayed to police by an attorney representing Steele's landlord in Llano Quemado. The attorney contacted police to say Steele confessed to his client that he had shot Larkin and provided details "only Patrick Larkin's killer could have known," the affidavit states.
Maestas said Rule 16-306, which outlines professional conduct regarding the release of public information in a criminal case, rendered law enforcement's public disclosure of the alleged confession inappropriate prior to a pretrial hearing. The rule itself states that "information contained in a public record" is one of "certain subjects that are unlikely to have a prejudicial effect on proceeding."
Maestas added that state police interviews in the affidavit with people who knew Steele and alleged he had a "propensity for violence" was character evidence that also should not have been made available to the media.
Maestas did not mention an Aug. 31 Facebook post by Taos County Commissioner Candyce O'Donnell, who publicly named Steele as a suspect and shared his mugshot before the 51-year-old's name had been published in any public record tied to the investigation.
Deputy District Attorney Ron Olsen denied any effort by law enforcement to leak information to the press that might compromise the case.
"I will say, judge, that there’s certainly no directive or other information being encouraged by our office toward the police to do anything but maintain their integrity and the integrity of the investigation," he said. "I would assert that, based on what has been read by counsel and outlaid in the courtroom today, that those are matters that are a matter of public record and they are contained within the arrest affidavit."
Olsen went on, "I would also note that under rule 16-103, committee commentary to that rule states that, 'On the other hand, there are vital social interests served by the free dissemination about events having legal consequences and about legal proceedings themselves. The public has a right to know about threats to its safety and measures aimed at its security. It also has a legitimate interest in the conduct of judicial proceedings, particularly in matters of general public concern. Furthermore, the subject matter of a legal proceeding is often of direct significance in debate and deliberation over questions of public policy.' "
Judge McElroy reminded the attorneys of the importance of finding a jury in Taos County if the case goes to trial. He urged law enforcement officers in the room "to have some caution in their public documents."
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