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Murder case sent back to district court for resentencing

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Four New Mexico Supreme Court justices have ruled that the case of a man found guilty of first-degree murder in a decades-old homicide in Chaves County will be sent back to a lower court for resentencing, though they declined to overturn his conviction.

The four-justice panel issued the decision Nov. 30 after hearing an appeal of Francisco Martinez Jr.’s first-degree murder conviction, in which Martinez’s attorney had asked the court to vacate Martinez’s conviction or reverse or remand it back to the court for a new trial.

In the decision authored by Justice Shannon Bacon, and with Justices Michael E. Vigil, Barbara J. Vigil and David K. Thomson concurring, the court determined the sentence Martinez received in his first-degree murder trial for a 1995 fatal shooting in Dexter was greater than the maximum sentence allowed under state statute. However, they found that did not warrant a new trial and affirmed the verdict.

Martinez was found guilty by a jury in 2018 of first-degree murder, willful and deliberate, in the Oct. 15, 1995 fatal shooting of Leobardo Loya at an illegal horse track in Dexter. He was 17 years old at the time and immediately fled to Mexico following the incident. In 2017, Martinez was arrested in El Paso and extradited back to New Mexico to face trial in Loya’s death.

Because of his age at the time of the shooting, Martinez was tried as a serious youthful offender. He was then sentenced to 40 years incarceration, to be followed by two years parole and the final 10 years of the sentence suspended.

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Under New Mexico state law, Martinez’s attorney, Kathleen Baldridge, argued on appeal that an individual tried as a serious youthful offender cannot face a sentence that exceeds the mandatory term that an adult offender receives for the same crime.

In New Mexico, the decision states, an adult found guilty of first-degree murder must serve a basic sentence of 30 years in prison before they are eligible for parole or their sentence can be reduced for good time served.

“Although the district court suspended 10 years incarceration, leaving the defendant with 30 years to serve, his actual sentence exceeds that of a mandatory adult sentence,” the decision states.

Dianna Luce, district attorney for New Mexico’s 5th Judicial District, whose office prosecuted the case, said Thursday that as soon as the district court receives the remand, they will schedule a hearing on the matter.

“At that time, the court will resentence Mr. Martinez,” Luce said.

Baldridge did not return calls for comment about the decision before press time Monday.

Baldridge had argued that the conviction should be overturned because: Martinez received ineffective counsel; the court committed a fundamental error in not instructing the jury on self defense; the district court abused its discretion by admitting evidence of a prior altercation as proof of motive or intent; and that the evidence to charge Martinez with first-degree murder was insufficient.

All four of those reasons were rejected by the court.

In the appeal, Baldridge argued Martinez was denied effective counsel during his trial by his then-attorney, and that by not pursuing a defense of self-defense at trial, the attorney’s performance “fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.”

Martinez’s defense in their appeal asked that the case be remanded back to district court for an evidentiary hearing.

The four justices though rejected that request. According to the decision, at trial Martinez’s defense argued that at the time of the shooting, multiple people were firing shots and that it was therefore impossible to know who fired the shot that killed Loya.

However, in a move that surprised the court and Martinez’s attorney at the time, Martinez testified that he had killed Loya because Loya was reaching for his gun.

Despite the testimony, the defense repeatedly said they did not want to tender a self-defense instruction to the jury.

The justices in their decision stated that not pursuing a self-defense strategy could have been part of a larger strategy to get the jury to acquit Martinez by placing reasonable doubt in their mind as to who fired the fatal shot.

“Suggesting that defendant intended to shoot victim, albeit in self-defense, could have interfered with such strategy to negate the element of deliberate intent,” the decision states.

The justices in the decision also concluded the district court did not commit a fundamental error requiring reversal by not tendering a self-defense instruction to the jury during the trial.

They also concluded evidence of a past physical confrontation between Martinez and Loya was properly admitted as evidence of Martinez’s motive and intent in the case, and that sufficient evidence was presented at trial to support Martinez’s conviction.

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

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