Reconsidering a murder verdict - Albuquerque Journal

Reconsidering a murder verdict

Things didn’t look good for Steve Kramer.

He didn’t look good.

The once intelligent, articulate and ardent activist against police brutality and for the rights of homeless people was disheveled and dazed when he walked out of the former campaign office of failed mayoral candidate Stella Padilla and was confronted by three Albuquerque police officers with their weapons drawn.

Kramer, then 42, had a loaded revolver under his right arm, a cellphone in his hand and a lot of trouble ahead of him.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

Inside the small office at the Old Town Shopping Center, a homeless man named Vincent Gutierrez, 40, was dead, a single gunshot wound to his chest.

An officer asked if anybody was bleeding out inside the office. No, Kramer said.

But then.

“There’s a dead guy in there, and I didn’t kill him,” he said.

It must have seemed like an open-and-shut case, a senseless murder of an unlikely victim that Oct. 28, 2017, night and the tragic demise of a force for good who had broken very bad.

Kramer hadn’t left the scene, hadn’t called 911. The revolver he held, a .38 Smith and Wesson Special, proved to be the murder weapon. A .38 round was found in his Ford pickup. Those who knew Kramer said he had fallen far fast in the space of mere months, sucked into a dark, bizarre and paranoid place by his monthslong methamphetamine use.

Also at the office that night was fellow activist Dinah Vargas. She had once been Kramer’s best friend, according to court documents, but during the trial she was a key witness against him.

Steve Kramer spoke at an Albuquerque City Council meeting to address the aftermath of a Trump rally in May 2016. About seven months later, Kramer’s wife says, he started doing methamphetamines. (Courtesy of ABQ City Council)

Kramer, who before the shooting had nothing worse on his record than a traffic ticket, was found guilty of first-degree willful and deliberate murder and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon after a 2½-day trial in November 2018. Six months later, he was sentenced to life in prison.

But had it really been so open and shut? Many of Kramer’s family members, friends and others, including me, have questions. And many continue to believe in his innocence. They remain hopeful the state Supreme Court will give Kramer, now 46, a second chance and grant him a new trial.

“There are too many holes, there are too many unexplained uncertainties,” appellate attorney Caren Friedman told the justices during oral arguments Jan. 15 in Kramer’s appeal for a new trial. “The court cannot conclude on this record that Steve committed a murder of any degree beyond a reasonable doubt.”

But Assistant Attorney General Marko Hananel, on behalf of the state, argued that not only had Kramer killed Gutierrez, but also he did so with deliberate and premeditated intent.

Friedman, in the appeal, argues that no physical evidence proves Kramer pulled the trigger and that the case “boils down to he-said/she-said testimony.”

So what did he and she say about that night?

Vargas, who worked on Padilla’s campaign, told lead Detective Matt Caplan that she had been at the office at 2121 Central NW earlier that day and had returned that night to retrieve a camera. She told him she had not expected Kramer there that night. She testified that, after he arrived, he asked to use the bathroom and was in the bathroom making strange grunting noises and talking angrily to himself when Gutierrez showed up.

She testified that Gutierrez, who was living in a small trailer in the parking lot, told her that Kramer had called him over. After Kramer emerged from the bathroom, she testified, the two men shook hands and chatted.

Vargas said she had turned away when she heard a pop, then saw the revolver smoking from Kramer’s hand and Gutierrez bleeding on the floor.

She said Kramer threatened to shoot her, so she fled to Padilla’s home two minutes away and Padilla called 911.

A disheveled Steve Kramer was arrested for the Oct. 29, 2017, murder of Vincent Gutierrez. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

But Kramer, who also testified at his trial, said Gutierrez was already dead in a back room when he arrived. Vargas, he testified, was standing in the front part of the office and fled, presumably, he said, to go for help.

He searched for his cellphone in his truck, but could not find it, he said. He then tried to call 911 on two cellphones found in the office, but could not get either to work. He was heading back to his truck to look for a charger when he was confronted by police.

An Albuquerque police officer and two paramedics at the scene that night testified that, shortly after arriving on scene, they noted that blood pooling around Gutierrez appeared to be partly coagulated and rigor mortis was setting in.

Kramer’s appeal contends that the case is rife with errors, from the mishandling of the crime scene to “non-harmless evidentiary errors” introduced at court.

Among the issues presented in the appeal:

Fingerprints could not be lifted from the revolver. DNA on the weapon contained a mixture of at least three people, but could not be matched to Kramer, Gutierrez or Vargas.

Detective Caplan testified that the revolver was not stolen, but could not verify who owned the gun.

Caplan also testified that he never entered the crime scene, Kramer’s truck sat for three days without being sealed or processed for evidence, and in that time the truck was broken into and towed at the request of a nearby business.

Testimony also showed that the .38 round found in the truck was a different brand from those found in the revolver.

A large reddish stain next to Gutierrez’s body was reported initially by Detective Nick Laskar as the blood pattern of a shoe print. The print was not a match to Kramer’s boots, and the stain was dismissed and not tested to determine whether it was blood, Laskar testified.

The appeal also argues that Vargas’ testimony about how Kramer had called Gutierrez to the office that night is inadmissible hearsay.

As to Vargas’ statement that she had not expected Kramer to show up at the office that night, the appeal points out that text messages and calls between the two of them that day show that Kramer had asked her to bring equipment to his Northeast Heights house, but that she refused and the two agreed to meet at the office.

The trial was presided over by then-state District Judge Christina Argyres, who lost her retention election in November. The Judicial Performance Evaluation Committee had recommended she not be retained, saying she scored low in exercising sound legal reasoning, and being knowledgeable on the law and rules of procedure and evidence, among other issues.

“There were several rulings from the court that we did not agree with and believed were unjust,” Jennifer Barela, one of the public defenders for Kramer at trial, said in a statement. “We objected to all of those rulings during the trial. All of the issues raised in the appeal filed in the Supreme Court were argued at the trial level. We fought for a new trial then, and we hope the Supreme Court will reach a just ruling and Mr. Kramer receives a new trial.”

On that October night three years ago, Kramer had asked, “What’s going on?”

Maybe we still don’t know.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, jkrueger@abqjournal.com, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.

 

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