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Social distancing delays quintuple-homicide trial


Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

Juan David Villegas-Hernandez

The trial of a man accused of shooting to death his wife and four daughters will not get underway this July because of the impact rules mandated by the New Mexico Supreme Court for court rooms could have on the proceedings 

Judge Dustin K. Hunter of New Mexico’s 5th Judicial District granted the continuance requested by Herman Ortiz, defense attorney for Juan Villegas-Hernandez, 38, during a telephonic hearing Monday.

Villegas-Hernandez, who also participated by phone, confirmed through a translator he wanted the continuance and agreed to waive his right to a speedy trial to allow for the delay.

Ortiz asked for the continuance so jury selection could take place at a later date under what Ortiz called more normal circumstances.

Hunter in making his decision to delay the start of jury selection scheduled for July 6 — and trial set for July 7 to July 17 — echoed concerns the defense expressed about how face mask-wearing requirements and limits on the number of people in a courtroom could have on the trial.

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“The court has concern that an objection to going forward under the current circumstances, such as the face masks and the number of limited individuals in the courtroom, as well as the requirement of wearing masks throughout the proceeding, could prejudice a defendant who could waive time to get beyond those requirements,” Hunter said.

Ortiz also expressed concern the trial could last longer than expected. If the trial went longer than scheduled, Ortiz said, it would present “an extreme dilemma” for the defense. Ortiz said he has trials to attend in federal court between July 20 and 27.

John Sugg, district attorney for the 12th Judicial District and prosecutor in the case, said the state was still prepared for trial and would like to proceed as scheduled, though he understood the concerns of both the court and the defense.

Sugg informed the court he has several trials already scheduled throughout much of the rest of the year, but would be free in October for the trial.

A new date is likely to be decided July 10 when all parties appear for deposition.

New rules on social distancing in the courtroom were discussed by the defense, prosecution and Hunter during a June 8 status hearing.

Documents from the hearing state Hunter said the Villegas-Hernandez trial would be the district’s first under the court’s new rules and as a result “things could take 2 to 3 times longer as a result of the restrictions.”

The New Mexico Supreme Court in March suspended criminal and civil jury trials. Courts were allowed to resume trials between June 15 and July 15, but each district court must submit a plan to expand their operations and conduct jury trials for approval by the state Supreme Court.

Under the restrictions, courtrooms can have only 15 individuals at a time and they would have to remain six feet apart from one another and could not sit in the jury box, Hunter said at the June 8 hearing.

People in the courtroom during the trial — including the judge — would also be required to wear a mask at all times, though it is possible a mask could be removed while a person is speaking and then put back on, according to the document of the June 8 hearing.

Though it is possible to obtain a waiver to have more than 15 people in the courtroom, it would pertain only to jurors, the judge, counsel for both the state and defense and court staff.

Sugg said before Monday’s hearing the point was raised about how the victim’s family could be present for the proceedings, something they have a right to under the New Mexico State Constitution.

He said the idea was discussed of seating the victim’s family and other members of the public wishing to attend the trial in a separate courtroom with the proceedings livestreamed.

The matter though was not discussed further at Monday’s hearing.

Several continuances have already been granted in the case.

Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext, 301, or breakingnews@rdrnews.com

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