ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Barred evidence might have changed his mind
Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal
Juror Fred Trujillo said Friday he regrets finding former Albuquerque police officer Levi Chavez not guilty of killing his wife and said, “it’s a very good possibility that I let a murderer go free.”
Trujillo said in an interview that he struggled through five weeks of emotional courtroom drama and 11 hours of deliberations in the recently concluded trial, thinking for most of that time that the 32-year-old defendant had killed his wife. And he said that feeling has grown in the 10 days since he agreed with 11 of his peers to acquit Chavez of first-degree murder and evidence-tampering charges.
Chavez and his attorney, David Serna, said Tera Chavez, 26, killed herself with a single shot to the mouth from her husband’s APD-issued Glock 9 mm pistol.
Trujillo, 42, never believed that theory.
But he also didn’t believe prosecutors had cleared the significant hurdle of proving Chavez’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, which was required to convict him of crimes that could have landed him in prison for the rest of his life.
Four or five hours into their deliberations, Trujillo said, jurors took a vote. It was six for “not guilty,” four for “guilty” and two jurors were undecided, he said. Trujillo was one of the undecided, although he was “leaning toward guilty the whole time.”
He said Friday that the state would have had a better chance at meeting its burden if it had been allowed to present evidence that was barred from trial.
Potential jurors were vetted before the trial to make sure they didn’t have “fixed opinions” about Levi Chavez’s guilt or innocence. And they were admonished during the trial to avoid media reports.
But after the jury rendered its verdict on July 16, Trujillo went digging. He read news reports about evidence that had been barred from the courtroom as a result of pre-trial wrangling.
He said some of that evidence – including information about the state’s theory on Levi Chavez’s motive to kill Tera – would have been enough to change his mind.
“It was a sick feeling,” Trujillo said.
Reached by telephone late Friday, Serna said he had a number of concerns with Trujillo’s comments but agreed that the state hadn’t made its case.
“It may be that Tera Chavez was murdered,” Serna said. “We believe that the much more likely scenario is that she committed suicide.
“Even if the state proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Tera was murdered, they never presented one scintilla of evidence that Levi Chavez was even in the same county when she died.”
Trujillo, a salesman, said he was the last holdout for a guilty verdict and that he strongly considered swimming upstream and hanging the jury.
“I didn’t really know how the law worked. If I hung the jury, I was under the impression that he would be set free anyway,” Trujillo said. “I didn’t know or realize that if I did hang the jury, that it could go to a different trial if the state was to go after it again.”
Trujillo first spoke publicly last week in an interview with two local friends who run the Android Virus and Sean podcast online.
During his interview with the Journal on Friday, he said the nagging feeling that he had failed Tera’s family with his decision hasn’t gone away.
Instead, it has grown, beginning when he walked out of the Sandoval County courthouse, dodged questions from a group of reporters and got in his car.
“I wasn’t going to talk to anybody,” he said. “I just needed to get the hell out of there. I wasn’t happy with myself, and a lot of the jurors felt the same way, but we did what we had to do … As soon as I left the parking lot, I went and had a stiff drink. I really did. I went to one of the local casinos with some of the other jurors. We had a drink and tried to discuss a little bit more of what we just went through, and to let it go.”
At the casino bar, Trujillo looked up at a bank of television screens and saw coverage of the Levi Chavez case. Specifically, he saw an image of the former police officer’s truck.
The 2004 Ford F-250 pickup had been part of the state’s case. Prosecutors contended Chavez killed his wife in part to keep her from turning him in for an alleged scam in which he and his “cop buddies” staged the theft of the truck to collect insurance money.
Jurors only heard part of the state’s theory.
They received an instruction that said an agent from the state Insurance Fraud Bureau had gotten an anonymous call from the Los Lunas Style America – where Tera Chavez worked – just weeks before the 26-year-old’s death.
The female caller, who did not identify herself, made an allegation about insurance fraud involving Levi Chavez’s truck, according to the jury instruction.
The agent conducted an investigation that ended with a determination that the allegation was “unfounded,” the jury instruction said.
But jurors did not hear that the agent, Richard Farrelly, and his boss, Alan Rackstraw, had scheduled the insurance fraud case for a grand jury presentation in late 2010, according to court filings.
Rackstraw pulled the plug on the grand jury presentation a week or two before its scheduled date and decided to fold the murder charges and insurance fraud probe “all into the homicide case.”
But state District Judge George P. Eichwald barred Farrelly, the main witness in the scam theory, from testifying as a prosecution witness.
Serna said Friday the judge made his decision on what evidence and testimony should be allowed based on its reliability.
“Someone who is feeling unsure about the propriety of their decision based on evidence that wasn’t allowed is second-guessing the judge,” he said.
Trujillo said he believed Eichwald had done a good job presiding over the case.
Still, he said he felt like he “failed the Cordovas (Tera’s parents)… I still believe that it was not a suicide, especially after finding out a lot of the information that was withheld from us …,” he said. “It just didn’t seem right. Ultimately, I failed in persuading my fellow jurors. But, it is what it is, and I’ll have to live with that decision.”
Trujillo said the jury chose to go through the 300-plus pieces of evidence in the case – including photographs from Tera’s death scene “that will probably haunt me forever” – rather than taking a vote earlier in its deliberations. Jurors handled Levi Chavez’s APD-issued Glock 9 mm pistol, the gun used to kill Tera, and read Tera’s diary.
They took the divided vote and then went home.
The next day, after deliberating another two to three hours, the jury took its final vote on July 16.
This time it was unanimous – not guilty – although Trujillo said he was still thinking about hanging the jury at that point.
He said he didn’t ask for clarification about what that would mean.
“Everything happened so fast, that I didn’t,” Trujillo said. “I wish I would’ve spoke up a little bit. But the emotions were so high, the tension was so thick that, really, I didn’t have a lot of time to think about that specific detail, as far as hanging the jury. I wish I would’ve. I really do.”