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Murder suspect’s immigration hearing files may be sealed, US judge says

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

A federal judge said Tuesday he is contemplating sealing the transcript of what could be a “mini-murder trial” of the man charged in the fatal shooting of Jacqueline Vigil in Albuquerque in her driveway in late 2019.

Luis Talamantes-Romero

“This is a very, very unique and extraordinary case,” U.S. District Judge Jason Pulliam said during a pretrial hearing in San Antonio, Texas, where Luis Talamantes-Romero was scheduled to be sentenced next week on a charge of entering the U.S. illegally after deportation. That hearing has been delayed until early September.

Federal prosecutors hope to enhance Talamantes-Romero’s prison sentence for illegal reentry to the maximum 20 years allowed by presenting evidence related to Vigil’s slaying, which occurred several months after he returned to New Mexico after being deported back to Mexico.

But although an initial murder charge has been filed in New Mexico, Talamantes-Romero hasn’t been arraigned nor has he been appointed a criminal defense attorney in New Mexico. The case is on hold while state prosecutors in Albuquerque wait for the federal case to play out.

Second Judicial District Attorney Raúl Torrez has pledged to take the state murder case to trial. He recently announced his candidacy for state attorney general.

The federal court in Texas is being asked to determine, based on evidence to be presented by the government and the defense, whether Talamantes-Romero committed the murder. That would be tantamount to a “mini-murder trial” that is not relevant to his immigration case, his attorney said in court records.

For prosecutors, introducing the murder case at the immigration sentencing could be an easier way to ensure Talamantes-Romero remains in prison for a lengthy period, considering a lower standard of proof is needed – only a preponderance of the evidence. Fewer witnesses might need to testify, and hearsay is allowed, unlike in state court.

Talamantes-Romero’s defense attorney, Angela Saad Lindsey, has objected to the murder allegation being considered at all,

“What is particularly troubling is the difference in the legal standards from preponderance of the evidence and beyond a reasonable doubt for that future jury pool (in New Mexico),” she said.

Pulliam told both sides, “We are sort of in uncharted territory here.”

“The court is very, very concerned about tainting any potential jury pool in New Mexico,” Pulliam said. “The question is going to come up from both the state prosecution and the state defense teams, ‘Have you heard anything about this matter, have you read anything in the newspaper?’

“And I can see somebody raising their hand, saying, ‘Yes, I read an article about a federal judge in San Antonio who said he did it.’ ”

A criminal investigation by Albuquerque police, the FBI and the DA’s Office concluded that Talamantes-Romero fled to San Antonio, Texas, in the days after Vigil, the mother of two State Police officers, was killed, court records show.

Authorities say he and another man were lurking in a Jeep near her home before dawn on Nov. 19, 2019, and Talamantes-Romero jumped out to approach Vigil after seeing her get into her Cadillac on her way to the gym.

Her car door was locked, and nothing was taken. But before leaving, the assailant shot her dead.

Talamantes-Romero was arrested on Jan. 21, 2020, after APD officers received a Crime Stoppers tip alleging he was the gunman and he had fled to San Antonio. He was picked up on an illegal entry charge, his fourth.

But Talamantes-Romero was never identified publicly as a suspect until the FBI in Albuquerque entered the investigation in late July 2020, and the details of the murder investigation became public in an affidavit filed in his immigration case.

Fred Federici, acting U.S. attorney for New Mexico, appeared in person at the San Antonio hearing, as did Talamantes-Romero, who has been held in federal custody on the immigration violation in Texas since January 2020. A Journal reporter was permitted to watch the hearing remotely.

Federici told the judge Tuesday that he objected to the proposed transcript sealing, which he said is against Department of Justice policy.

The DOJ, Federici said, opposes sealing of “the courtroom except in extraordinary cases, this not being one of them.”

“What could be more extraordinary than this?” Pulliam asked.

“This is a matter of public concern,” the federal prosecutor replied. Federici said he believes jurors in the state murder trial will follow instructions to disregard press accounts and to base their verdict only on evidence presented in court.

Federici said that contrary to defense assertions, “It’s not disingenuous for us to be fighting for this. We’ve got a robbery problem in Albuquerque; we’ve been dealing with out-of-control crime rates in our city for a long time.”

“Is that a federal judicial matter for a San Antonio judge?” Pulliam asked.

“It’s a matter for everybody involved. It’s a matter of who we have on the streets of this country,” Federici said.

“To continue to come back to our country,” he said, “and continue to revisit this country when you’re told to stay out and you’ve been deported or removed, it matters what you do here.”

Defense attorney Lindsey said her client will be facing a 57- to 71-month prison sentence on the illegal entry charge if the murder allegation isn’t considered.

Talamantes-Romero’s defense team in the past has noted that he has lived most of his life in the United States and has family in Albuquerque. He is currently charged in Albuquerque with murder, aggravated burglary, tampering with evidence and more.

“Is he the guy who came back to visit his family, to work and lead an otherwise law-abiding life?” Federici asked the judge. “We say no. We say we’d like to present you the proof … this man came back as a predator, robbing people.

“People on the streets of Albuquerque, but it could be your city, judge.”

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