Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
A beer can introduced as evidence in the murder trial against an Albuquerque real estate investor is going to be tested for DNA nearly three decades after his conviction.
Jerry Vernon is serving a life sentence for shooting fellow businessman and longtime friend Larry Stevens in the face near La Luz Trail in 1989. He went on to spend two years on the lam after escaping from the minimum security geriatric unit of a New Mexico prison.
Now 81 years old, Vernon was in state District Court on Thursday as attorneys told Judge Carl Butkus they had agreed to test the can, which had been checked for fingerprints, but not DNA.
Vernon’s attorney, Joseph Sullivan, said during the hearing that the beer can was one of the only pieces of physical evidence admitted at the 1991 trial. It was mentioned by investigating officers, an eyewitness and Vernon himself.
“The beer can does carry a lot of weight in and of itself,” Sullivan said in court.
It is not clear what role the beer can played in Vernon’s prosecution or how he believes it could be used in any future proceedings.
Vernon first made the request for post-conviction DNA testing in a 2013 petition asking the court to set aside his sentence or grant him a new trial.
He has since filed a 43-page motion detailing “numerous failings of the courts, the State of New Mexico and even his own attorneys.” He asked for an expedited hearing on that motion, filed Oct. 31, citing his age and “serious health issues.”
Shot during a struggle
According to previous Journal stories, Vernon was found guilty of taking Stevens, 48, a former owner of bars and an electric supply company, from a convenience store parking lot to an arroyo in the Sandia Mountains and shooting him. Testimony at trial showed that days before the homicide, Vernon accused Stevens of stealing drugs from him.
Vernon, who once operated a real estate firm, testified at his trial that he heard Stevens had been hired to kill him.
On the night of the shooting, he and Stevens were in the car with a mutual friend when they started to talk about their problems, Vernon testified. Stevens pulled out a handgun, and later a shotgun, both of which Vernon testified he was able to grab.
They later got out of the vehicle, at which point Stevens started swinging a small baton at him. Vernon testified that Stevens was shot as the two struggled for control of the shotgun.
Jurors deliberated for two hours before convicting the then 54-year-old of first-degree murder and kidnapping.
“We couldn’t see any feasibility of it being an accident or struggle,” the jury foreman told a Journal reporter after the trial. He said jurors believed the shooting was deliberate because Stevens had been shot twice.
Vernon was sentenced to life plus 19 years. But the Supreme Court overturned his kidnapping conviction and the 19 years were later taken off Vernon’s sentence. He had turned down a plea deal that would have made him eligible for a maximum sentence of 12 years because he maintained his innocence, his attorney said after his sentencing.
A decade after his conviction, Vernon made headlines again when he escaped from the minimum security geriatric unit at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility.
The warden said Vernon misled prison medical personnel into believing his heart conditions and diabetes were more severe than they were, according to previous Journal reporting.
Court documents said he escaped by loosening the bolts on a security fence. A week before, Vernon had received a rejection letter from the state parole board after he sought executive clemency.
He was captured two years later in Hot Springs, Ark., where he’d been renting a basement apartment from an elderly woman unaware of his past. Marshals and police did not immediately take him into custody because he “did not look like the Vernon we were aware of,” said then-U.S. Marshal Gorden Eden.
“He looked more like Grizzly Adams,” Eden said at the time. “He had long hair, and was unshaven and unbathed.”
According to a spokesman for the District Attorney’s Office, Vernon was sentenced to nine years for his escape, which he will serve when his murder sentence is complete.