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Felony trial of Rio Arriba sheriff ends with hung jury

Rio Arriba County Sheriff James Lujan, right, and one of his attorneys Nathaniel Thompkins talk in the courtroom in Tierra Amarilla during the first day of his trial. On Friday, a jury failed to reach agreement on charges of bribery of a witness and harboring a fugitive, resulting in a mistrial. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Less than a day after closing arguments were completed, 1st Judicial District Judge Kathleen McGarry declared a mistrial Friday in the trial of Rio Arriba County Sheriff James Lujan.

The proceeding in Tierra Amarilla concluded when the jury failed to reach a unanimous verdict.

Lujan was facing felony charges of bribery of a witness and harboring or aiding a felon for allegedly helping former Española City Councilor Phillip Chacon evade police in March 2017.

The jury began deliberations around 3 p.m. Thursday, but by around 2:30 p.m. Friday, McGarry declared the mistrial.

The jury was split 8-4, with the majority believing Lujan was innocent on both counts, said defense attorney Jason Bowles.

“I believe the jury had serious reservations and doubts about the prosecution’s case,” he said. “We hope the prosecutor will go back and decide not to retry it.”

Andrea Rowley Reeb, the Clovis-area district attorney appointed by the state Attorney General’s Office as special prosecutor in the case, didn’t immediately return phone calls from the Journal on Friday.

First Judicial District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies declined comment, anticipating that the case will be retried.

“I understand there will be a retrial, and as such it’s not proper to comment at this time,” she said in a written statement.

Bowles said Lujan is extremely happy with the results. He said taxpayer resources are going into this case and he doesn’t believe there’s any basis to retry the case. If it is retried, he believes his client will be acquitted because the charges aren’t valid.

During the two-day trial, Bowles highlighted parts of the prosecution’s case and witness testimony that were inconsistent. He also questioned the credibility of the prosecution’s key witness, Cody Lattin, a Rio Arriba County deputy at the time. Lattin was previously fired by the Taos County Sheriff’s Office for lying about his military experience, though the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy Board dismissed those accusations.

During Lujan’s trial, Lattin testified that the sheriff had asked him to follow him to Chacon’s house to help serve a restraining order. Instead, he said Lujan picked up Chacon and drove off. Afterward, Lattin said the sheriff repeatedly told him not to tell anyone what had happened. Prosecutor Reeb told the jury that Lattin didn’t immediately tell anyone because he was afraid the sheriff would fire him if he did.

Lujan has another trial coming up next month in a case that also involved Chacon.

In that case, he is facing three counts of resisting, obstructing or evading an officer stemming from an incident in March 2020.

While Española police were attempting to execute a search warrant at Chacon’s home following a stabbing that occurred on his property, the sheriff showed up, allegedly drunk, and attempted to take over the scene. The charges were filed after Lujan refused to comply with a search warrant to provide investigators access to his cell phone.

That trial is scheduled to begin July 26.