Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
The case against an Uber driver accused of fatally shooting his passenger while parked on the side of Interstate 25 is moving forward on a count of voluntary manslaughter, a judge ruled Monday.
After a daylong preliminary hearing, the District Attorney’s Office asked Judge Neil Candelaria to find probable cause to support a second-degree murder prosecution against 32-year-old Clayton Benedict. But the judge ultimately found that the evidence in the case supported only the manslaughter count.
Based on Monday’s ruling, Benedict faces up to seven years in prison if convicted. His defense team contends that he fired in self-defense.
Prosecutors allege Benedict was driving for Uber when he picked up James Porter and a friend from a bar in Northeast Albuquerque on St. Patrick’s Day. Both passengers were intoxicated, and Porter’s friend threw up in the back seat of Benedict’s car, sparking an argument over a cleanup fee of up to $250. Benedict reported that he thought the man was going to throw up again, so he pulled to the side of the interstate and told the two to get out of his car.
Things seem to have escalated shortly after Porter slammed the car door, and then removed his shoes and necklaces, and threw his sunglasses at Benedict.
“The defendant pulled out a gun as a result of a door slam and some items of clothing being kicked off,” prosecutor Natalie Strub said. “That is not a reasonable response to those actions.”
Benedict told detectives that he opened fire after Porter threatened to run over him with his own car and seemed to be “putting his torso into the driver compartment to get in.”
He also reported that he started carrying a gun while driving for Uber after someone attempted to carjack him and after a fellow driver reported being raped.
Testimony Monday illustrated just how quickly the events unfolded on that Sunday evening.
Benedict picked up Porter at 5:37 p.m., and 911 calls reporting the shooting were pouring in eight minutes later.
Benedict’s attorney, Raymond Maestas, said in a statement after the hearing that the evidence and the judge’s ruling confirm that Benedict “did not murder anyone.”
“Like anyone among us who is placed in great fear from the actions of an irrational, unpredictable person who is acting crazy, Clayton defended himself – which is his natural, inherent right to do so … a right that cannot be taken away by the government,” Maestas wrote.
A spokesman for the DA’s Office said in an email that prosecutors are preparing to move forward now that the court has made a charging decision.
“This is a complex case with a number of unique issues which were presented during the preliminary hearing to determine probable cause,” he wrote.
Before announcing his decision, Candelaria said that second-degree murder is appropriate in homicide cases in which there is not sufficient provocation, and the courts have generally held that words alone do not rise to the level of sufficient provocation. But voluntary manslaughter is appropriate in cases in which a homicide happens amid sufficient provocation, which Candelaria said generally includes a combination of words and actions.
“I do not find the state has established second-degree murder in this case,” he said. “However, I do find the evidence is sufficient to go forward on the charge of voluntary manslaughter with a firearm enhancement.”
Benedict was immediately arraigned and entered a plea of not guilty.