Taos jury finds Ranchos man guilty of first-degree murder

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A jury found Brandon Lopez guilty of first-degree murder Friday (May 18) in Taos district court.

After a two-day trial and more than a day of deliberating, the jury found the 25-year-old guilty of the capital offense related to the fatal 2017 shooting of 23-year-old Destiny Valdez outside a gas station in Taos.

Jurors chose murder over manslaughter, which had been presented as an option during trial.

Gary Swinford, who served as foreman on the jury, said this week that many jurors were favoring the higher charge after the first day of trial.

He and jurors reserved judgment based on the possibility that Lopez suffers from an ill-defined mental disability, which the defendant’s mother had described as “diminished capacity” when she testified in the courtroom, Swinford said.

Jurors also reviewed video surveillance footage that captured the deadly shooting outside the Shell gas station on Paseo del Cañon Feb. 3, 2017. Swinford said the jury paid special attention to the defendant’s interaction with the driver of the car, Peter Martinez, who said he had warned Lopez not to shoot at the vehicle because “kids” – two minors – were in the vehicle, along with two other passengers.

When Swinford noted that Lopez started firing as soon as Martinez got back behind the wheel, he said he, too, decided that first-degree murder was the appropriate charge. He said the sequence of events showed that Lopez’s actions were premeditated.

The jury also convicted Lopez of five other charges in the case, including shooting at or from a motor vehicle, two counts of aggravated battery resulting in great bodily harm and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Lopez was found not guilty of tampering with evidence.

The defendant will return to court within six weeks for a sentencing hearing. He could face a maximum sentence of 30 years to life in prison for the murder conviction. The death penalty was abolished in New Mexico in 2009.

The verdict announcement drew several of Valdez’s family members into the courtroom Friday, including her mother and father, who had spent the better part of the week camping out in cars outside the courthouse and stationed around its halls, waiting for the jury to make its decision.

“Justice has been served,” Lupita Rodarte, Valdez’s mother, said as she embraced family and friends in the court hallway after hearing the verdict.

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