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Daniels the lawyer was heavy hitter in the courtroom

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

As a lawyer, Charles Daniels developed a reputation as a heavy hitter in both civil and criminal law.

What cases stand out?

How about one that dealt with undercover cops and legendary entertainer Wayne Newton?

Las Vegas, Nev., detectives were trying to solve a double homicide during the robbery of a jewelry store in which the mom and pop proprietors were killed. They had arrested two guys, but they turned out to have alibis.

“Once the homicide detectives heard some guys in Albuquerque had access to an unknown quantity of Indian jewelry, they became suspicious.

“The lead detective knew Wayne Newton, who at the time was basically Mr. Las Vegas. So he went to Wayne and asked if he would pretend to be interested in opening up some Indian jewelry stores and get these guys to bring their jewelry up to Las Vegas.

“They had a likely eyewitness (a customer), who not only knew the jewelry that was taken, but had seen the person they believed to be the killer.”

So the Albuquerque businessmen – one of them a high-ranking bank officer – rounded up a collection of Indian jewelry on consignment from Albuquerque area stores and headed to Las Vegas.

“They go to the hotel and lay it all out for Wayne to see. He comes in with a guy he says is his appraiser, but who is really the eyewitness. Newton’s bodyguards were actually undercover homicide detectives and the adjoining rooms were filled with undercover cops.”

The eyewitness realizes it’s not the jewelry and neither of the guys looks anything like the supposed killer, so he doesn’t give the go-ahead signal. But the cops charge in with pistols, screaming “freeze.”

Albuquerque attorney Bill Dixon had represented one of the men, and he called Daniels and asked him to work on the case.

“This was the cleanest Indian jewelry in history and after a week they dropped the stolen property charge.” The men were acquitted in criminal court of a second charge of being unlicensed itinerant peddlers and then filed a civil case in federal court.

The judge granted a last-minute motion by the police for summary judgment. “It stunned us. It was totally without any rational explanation, so we appealed to the 9th Circuit.”

One explanation became clear sooner rather than later.

“While on appeal, news started coming out that the judge had been taking money from a local gambler and not paying his income tax,” and as part of his defense had offered up a polygraph that was administered by the lead detective in the jewelry bust.

Ultimately, the judge was convicted and sentenced to prison. Meanwhile, the 9th Circuit in an opinion by soon-to-be U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy reversed the lower court decision, using words like “outrageous” and “unjustified” to describe police conduct. The case then settled before trial.

ABQ murder

Daniels also represented Kerry Rodney Lee, who was the real killer of a UNM student whose death in 1974 led to the wrongful conviction of four motorcycle gang members sentenced to death row.

“We had to both try to protect his rights at the same time as carrying out his wishes not to have four guys executed for something he did at a time when the district attorney was refusing to accept the reality that he had put four innocent guys on death row.”

The four motorcycle gang members were released from prison after serving two years.

Lee, who came forward after becoming a born-again Christian, was convicted of second-degree murder in the mutilation and murder of William Velten. Lee had said he killed Velten in self-defense as part of a drug dispute.

Gilbert case

And there was the 1998 case of Terri Gilbert, charged with murdering her husband, Bernalillo County Commissioner Gene Gilbert, in their home.

Daniels and Randi McGinn represented Gilbert. She told police the man she killed was an intruder who followed her into a darkened basement – not knowing it was her husband.

An angry special prosecutor said after the trial that Terri Gilbert got away with murder twice. She had shot and killed her then-husband in 1974, claiming self-defense after he attacked her with a lead-filled homemade blackjack.

Daniels and McGinn succeeded in their efforts to keep the jury from hearing about that case.

“I have believed in Terri from the very beginning,” Daniels said after the trial. “I think the police made up their minds pretty quickly that Terri Gilbert was guilty of murder.”