A two-day murder trial of a man accused of shooting and killing a woman at a gas station in Taos last year is now in the hands of a Taos District Court jury.
As of press time Wednesday afternoon (May 16), the jury was set to begin deliberations Thursday morning (May 17) to consider several charges filed against Brandon Lopez, the 25-year-old Ranchos de Taos man accused of shooting 23-year-old Destiny Valdez at the Shell gas station on Paseo del Cañon Feb. 3, 2017.
In closing arguments, defense attorney George Harrison reminded the jury that Lopez had been threatened by a man who had been riding in the vehicle with Valdez just moments before the deadly shooting. Harrison framed Valdez's death as a tragic, but unintended consequence of his client's actions.
Prosecutor Steven Romero of the 8th Judicial District Attorney's Office argued that Lopez would have known the danger of firing a gun at a vehicle full of people. He reminded the jury to utilize "common sense" when returning a verdict on the case, which has been pending in the Taos County court system for more than a year.
For the most serious charge Lopez faces, Judge Sarah Backus told the jury they could consider either first-degree murder or involuntary manslaughter – if they found the defendant guilty in Valdez's death.
Earlier on Wednesday, Harrison had successfully argued for the dismissal of three charges against his client: two counts of criminal damage to property, one for damages over $1,000, and one count of aggravated assault against a witness who is currently wanted on separate cases and never appeared to testify.
The dismissed property damage charges were originally filed for damages caused when Lopez fired at the back of a white Pontiac Grand Am where Valdez was seated the night of Feb. 3, 2017.
The rounds allegedly damaged the vehicle and destroyed a cell phone an occupant of the car said she was holding. Harrison argued that the prosecution had not presented sufficient evidence regarding the value of damages to justify the charges.
Backus granted the motion, stating, "There is evidence of damage, obviously, but there's no evidence of value," adding, "the value amount has to be one of the elements."
Harrison also motioned for the dismissal of other charges, which Backus denied.
By mid-afternoon, Lopez still faced six charges, including first-degree murder, a capital offense at least one jury member questioned on the first day of trial Tuesday (May 15).
During a break from proceedings Tuesday, Backus read aloud a set of questions submitted by jury members. At least one had asked whether "manslaughter" would be presented as a possibile charge in the case.
Prior to the filing of the original charges last year, Taos Police Detective Barry Holfelder had speculated that Lopez might face second-degree murder, a lesser offense defined in New Mexico as murder committed in coincidence with some "mitigating circumstance," such as becoming embroiled in a sudden fight, acting in the heat of the moment or being sufficiently provoked.
Throughout the trial, Harrison teased out details regarding the alleged altercation between Lopez and one of four other occupants of the car Valdez was riding in prior to the shooting, which could potentially interfere with the state's efforts to land a conviction for first-degree murder.
On Tuesday, witnesses who were in the car where Valdez was shot gave overlapping accounts of the altercation while viewing surveillance video that captured the incident at the gas station.
The footage shows Lopez arriving first in a gray sedan, which he parks at the gas pumps. One witness, Peter Martinez, arrives second, driving a white Pontiac Grand Am occupied by Valdez and three other passengers. Lopez can then be seen approaching the Grand Am, leaning in the driver-side window and speaking with someone – identified by witnesses as Martinez. After the exchange, Martinez pulls into a parking spot, gets out and goes inside the store.
According to Muniz and her sister, another passenger in the car, identified as Nathaniel Hise, then gets out and taunts Lopez, who can then be seen on camera approaching the Pontiac aggressively.
Following an exchange at the vehicle, which is only partly visible on camera, someone appears to strike Lopez, who recoils and then retreats back to the gas pumps. Witnesses said Hise delivered the blow.
Martinez comes out of the store moments later, returns to the car and gestures at Lopez, who appears to extend his arm and fire a weapon at the car.
Following his arrest later that night, Lopez claimed that Hise had threatened to kill him with a knife during the preceding altercation.
While none of the witnesses said they saw such a threat, Harrison questioned their testimony during cross-examinations, suggesting that their field of view from within the Grand Am would have been limited.
Holfelder took the witness stand on Wednesday and confirmed that Hise would not be able to appear at the trial. Hise is currently a fugitive from justice with several outstanding arrest warrants. His absence led to the dismissal of the third charge against Lopez.
After the jury exited the courtroom on Wednesday, Harrison turned to Lopez and said, "Now the hard part: We just wait."
For updates, check back here at taosnews.com.