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Judge delays sentencing for Nehemiah Griego

During a hearing Tuesday, Nehemiah Griego turns to his sisters to apologize for killing five family members. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

During a hearing Tuesday, Nehemiah Griego turns to his sisters to apologize for killing five family members. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

An Albuquerque judge spent hours Tuesday hearing arguments over how much prison time – if any – Nehemiah Griego should face for killing five members of his family in 2013.

State District Judge Alisa Hart is tasked with handing down a sentence of up to 120 years to the now-22-year-old convicted of fatally shooting his parents, Greg and Sarah Griego, and three siblings, Zephaniah, 9, Jael, 5, and Angelina, 2. As the all-day hearing concluded well after 5 p.m., Hart said she will issue her decision at a later date.

Annette Verreault, Nehemiah Griego's sister, is comforted by friends after Nehemiah Griego's sentencing hearing Tuesday.

Annette Verreault, Nehemiah Griego’s sister, is comforted by friends after Nehemiah Griego’s sentencing hearing Tuesday.

In a statement to the court, Griego said he is remorseful and apologized to his older sisters, three of whom spoke Tuesday on behalf of the prosecution. He also thanked individually two aunts and two uncles who have continued to visit him regularly while he’s been in custody and who had, he said, “shown me what forgiveness is” when he’d expected retaliation and abandonment.

“One thing you guys have given me more than anything else is hope,” Griego said. “Hope in a better future, hope in a better self.”

Nehemiah Griego wipes away a tear as he thanks the relatives who have stood by him. Family members asking for mercy for Griego and those who advocated for a strict sentence sat on opposite sides of the courtroom. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Nehemiah Griego wipes away a tear as he thanks the relatives who have stood by him. Family members asking for mercy for Griego and those who advocated for a strict sentence sat on opposite sides of the courtroom. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

The prosecution described in haunting detail the deaths of five members of Griego’s family and how he said he “chose to turn off his conscience and let the beast out” before shooting his two young sisters, who were crying in their bedroom.

It’s Griego’s second sentencing hearing in the case, and the stakes are much higher this time.

A Children’s Court judge initially determined Griego could be treated and was eligible for a juvenile sentence, and he was set to remain in custody until his 21st birthday. But 11 days before his scheduled release, the Court of Appeals ordered a new amenability hearing, finding the judge had abused his discretion. A week into that hearing, the judge recused himself from the case and it was reassigned to Hart, who ultimately determined Griego should face an adult sentence.

As she lobbied for the maximum penalty, prosecutor Mari Martinez said Griego plotted to kill a defenseless mother, three children and a man whose back was turned.

“The defendant is that rare juvenile whose crimes reflect irreparable corruption,” Martinez said. “And that is confirmed by his lack of remorse.”

One of Griego’s sisters said she has forgiven her brother but believes he is angry with her and would try to harm her and her family if he had the chance. She said she tries to maintain a low profile, doesn’t use social media and moves frequently because she worries that he might find her.

From left, Vanessa Lightbourne, Carolina Griego and Annette Verreault listen as others speak at the sentencing hearing for their brother, Nehemiah Griego. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

From left, Vanessa Lightbourne, Carolina Griego and Annette Verreault listen as others speak at the sentencing hearing for their brother, Nehemiah Griego. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

“Five people, three of whom were very young children who he knew and professed to love, were not safe around him,” Annette Verreault said. “The question must be asked, then who is?”

She said the safest place for him is in a secure and heavily guarded facility where he can receive treatment.

But defense attorney Stephen Taylor read a letter from another of his juvenile clients, Nathaniel Jouett, who is serving a prison sentence after killing two people in a Clovis library. Jouett wrote that he is surrounded by violence, drugs and negativity, and has been left to try to rehabilitate himself.

Taylor said the prison system lacks services and treatment for mental health, arguing that Griego has shown he can be rehabilitated. He urged Hart to find a creative solution.

“That’s what I’m asking this court to do, to come up with a solution, a solution that will give Nehemiah the treatment he needs,” Taylor said. “A solution that will afford him the opportunity to be rehabilitated, which he has already demonstrated he has the capacity for.”

In an interview after the hearing, Taylor said he hopes Griego will be placed on probation with a condition that he live at a treatment facility that would provide intensive therapy, socialization skills and life skills. A possible prison sentence would be hanging over his head and he would most likely wear an ankle monitor.

“Based on the progress he’s already demonstrated and the earnest effort which he’s put into his rehabilitation already … there’s plenty of reason to think he’s going to continue on that path, and that he will get the skills and the treatment he needs to rejoin society in a way that’s safe for him and for the community,” Taylor said.

Judge Alisa Hart talks with attorneys before the start of the sentencing hearing for Nehemiah Griego on Tuesday.

Judge Alisa Hart talks with attorneys before the start of the sentencing hearing for Nehemiah Griego on Tuesday.

In her amenability order, Hart recounted the events that unfolded in the Griego home in the South Valley.

Griego waited for his mother to fall asleep on the night of Jan. 18, 2013, “so she would not fight back.”

“When Child’s mother fell asleep, Child took a .22 caliber rifle out of the closet and pulled the trigger, shooting her in the face,” Hart wrote. “Child shot a second round at his mother’s face to be sure she was dead.”

His 9-year-old brother, Zephaniah, lay sleeping beside Sarah Griego. Nehemiah woke him, told him their mother was dead and turned her face toward him before shooting the boy in the head.

“At the time, Z.G. was crying and trying to clean his mother’s face with a tissue,” court documents say.

Nehemiah’s little sisters were crying in a room down the hall, and he would tell detectives that “he turned off his conscience completely” before shooting them.

The teen waited five hours for his father to return home from work, according to Hart’s order. During that time, he drank an energy drink, petted the family dog and practiced shooting the AR-15 he would use to kill his father – a more powerful rifle than the .22 he’d used on the rest of his family. When he saw his father’s truck pull up, he hid in a bathroom.

“When his father … arrived home and passed by the bathroom, Child stepped out and shot his father with the AR-15 rifle four or five times, causing his death,” Hart wrote in her order.

Greg Griego had been involved in a gang in California and he converted to Christianity as he faced the possibility of a prison sentence. He would go on to become a pastor.

Eric Griego, Nehemiah’s uncle, brought up that history during Tuesday’s hearing.

“Given my brother’s own troubled past, his own redemption when many had written him off,” he said he believes firmly that Greg wouldn’t have wanted Nehemiah to go to prison for life. He asked the judge to consider some highly supervised treatment for his nephew.

“There’s no victory for our family,” Griego said. “We’ve already lost five family members. Now we’ll lose another if the prosecution gets their life sentence.”

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