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Ruling sends Griego case back to judge

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Just 11 days before he was set for release from a juvenile detention center, Nehemiah Griego, who killed his parents and three siblings five years ago, learned that his case is being sent back before a judge for a hearing that could land him in adult prison, with a possible maximum 120 years.

Nehemiah Griego

The reversal was issued in a state Court of Appeals ruling Friday in an appeal by the Attorney General’s Office attempting to get Griego reclassified and sentenced as an adult.

Children’s Court Judge John Romero in 2016 found Griego, who was 15 when he killed his family, amenable to treatment and sentenced him as a juvenile after he pleaded guilty to second degree murder charges, among others.

Friday’s ruling doesn’t fully overturn Romero’s ruling, but it does require him to basically hold another hearing to determine if Griego is amenable to treatment.

If so, Griego will be released, since he will have finished his juvenile sentence as of March 20. If not found amenable, Griego could be sentenced as an adult and face adult prison sanctions.

Because the case is so unusual – if not entirely unprecedented – parties to the case on Friday were unsure of how exactly the next steps will unfold or what will happen to Griego if Romero’s reconsideration is not complete by the time his March 20 release date passes (and it likely won’t be, most parties in the case speculated Friday).

“It’s one of the rare occasions of first impression,” said state Attorney General Hector Balderas, referencing the legal term for issues that have never arisen. “The Court (of Appeals) got it right in weighing public safety and weighing the treatment needs of Nehemiah.”

The ruling says that, in his first determination, Romero overlooked elements showing the teen was not amenable to treatment.

This time, the judge must take into account the grisly nature of the crime in balance with other factors, such as Griego’s history and psychology, along with expert testimony about the likelihood that Griego could be treated. He turns 21 on March 20.

And this time, Romero will have access to records on how Griego has been progressing in juvenile prison for the last three years.

“Thus, the question the district court effectively must decide is whether (Griego) now twenty-one years old, has been ‘rehabilitated or treated sufficiently to protect society’s interests,’ ” Court of Appeals Judge Stephen French wrote in the court panel’s unanimous decision.

The opinion also said that Romero abused his discretion when he “arbitrarily disregarded unanimous expert testimony” that Griego was not amenable to treatment by age 21, though experts said he was likely treatable with more time.

The decision also requires Romero to give more weight this round to the nature of the crime than he did in his first consideration.

“The district court’s refusal to consider, or even review and summarize the testimony about the crimes as it did the testimony concerning the other statutory factors, constitutes an abuse of discretion,” the opinion reads. Legally speaking, abuse of discretion occurs when a judge goes “clearly against the logic and effect of the facts and circumstances of the case.”

The ruling essentially reverts the case to the stage right before Griego was sentenced, at which point Griego was in custody.

But the Children, Youth and Families Department, which runs the state’s juvenile detention system, cannot hold anyone past the 21st birthday.

That means parties in Griego’s case will have to figure out where he would be held, pending an outcome in Romero’s rehearing or other court proceedings triggered by Friday’s ruling.

The Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office, which will take over the case, said Friday it will seek to have Griego held in an adult detention facility, such as the county jail, while prosecutors attempt to get him sentenced as an adult, DA spokesman Michael Patrick said.

“In light of the Court of Appeals ruling in the remand for a new sentencing, we look forward to the opportunity to make a stronger presentation of the evidence as we seek to hold this individual accountable for his crimes and keep Nehemiah Griego behind bars where he belongs,” Patrick wrote in a statement.

Griego’s public defender, Stephen Taylor, said Friday his legal team was working to make sense of the ruling and was considering the steps moving forward. It is possible they could appeal the ruling, but Taylor said it’s too early to speculate.

A hearing in Griego’s case had already been scheduled before Romero on Monday to address attempts by the 2nd District Attorney’s Office to keep him incarcerated in the event the Court of Appeals had not ruled at all by March 20. Those attempts will likely be superseded by the ruling’s implications.

CYFD spokesman Henry Varela said he expects the issue of where Griego will be held to be addressed at the Monday hearing.

The hearing will likely not resolve the larger demands of the Court of Appeals’ ruling.