Venue changes sought for sheriff’s cases

Rio Arriba County Sheriff James Lujan high fives and hugs his deputies after the verdict from the jury was announced at the Rio Arriba County Courthouse in Tierra Amarilla on June 4. (Pool photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Pool)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

As Rio Arriba County Sheriff James Lujan’s fate hung in the balance two weeks ago, his wife was hosting a cookout in the courthouse parking lot.

She hauled in a tailgating grill, and several deputies attended the barbecue — an apparent show of support for their embattled leader — all the while jurors holed up in the deliberation room of the famed Tierra Amarilla courthouse could see and hear the gathering through the window.

That alleged incident is one of several laid out in change of venue motions filed by prosecutors in a pair of cases involving Lujan, who earlier this month was on trial on felony counts of bribery of a witness and aiding or harboring a felon. That first trial ended with a hung jury June 4, but recent motions filed by prosecutor Andrea Rowley Reeb allege the trial was anything but fair.

The motions also note that deputies working for Lujan controlled courthouse security throughout the proceedings, that a deputy approached one of the jurors at a gas station during the trial and that some members of the jury worried that deputies and others could hear their deliberations through the courthouse windows.

Lujan’s defense attorney chalks up the motions to sour grapes, countering that he never witnessed any of the shenanigans that the prosecution is alleging, that jurors were fair and that the prosecutor is merely angling for a jury pool that might be more likely to convict his client.

Reeb said she plans to seek a new trial in the case that resulted in a mistrial, pending the change of venue motion’s outcome. A hearing on that motion has yet to be set by 1st Judicial District Judge Kathleen McGarry.

Reeb, the Clovis-area district attorney appointed by the state Attorney General’s Office as special prosecutor in the case, filed the motions Monday in both cases.

Lujan is set for trial next month in a second case, in which he’s charged with three counts of resisting, evading or obstructing an officer. This trial is scheduled to take place in Santa Fe, and Reeb has asked 1st Judicial District Judge Bryan Biedscheid to change the venue in that case, too. A hearing is set for Monday.

Reeb said she noticed things were off during the trial from the very beginning. She said the prosecution was placed in the jury box, and the jury couldn’t see her unless she stood up. Jurors were seated throughout the courtroom, the result of COVID-19 precautions.

Meanwhile, Lujan and his defense attorney Jason Bowles were in the middle of the courtroom.

Bowles said the motion in the case that has been tried is a “slap in the face” to the jury and said its members were fair and took their oath seriously. He said Reeb’s request is political and is an attempt to move the trial to a county where she thinks she can win. In Reeb’s motions, she’s requesting trials in both cases be moved to either Chaves, Doña Ana or San Juan county.

The motions allege that several jurors in the Tierra Amarilla trial were approached by deputies and Lujan. The motions state that Reeb was told by one juror of being approached at a gas station by a Rio Arriba County sheriff’s deputy during the trial, an encounter that left the juror frightened.

Other jurors said they didn’t feel comfortable reaching a verdict on Lujan because he’s the sheriff and has “all the power in the county,” according to Reeb’s motions.

“I’ve tried a lot of cases and I knew walking in, this doesn’t feel right,” Reeb said. “Jurors are supposed to be sequestered away from defendants.”

New Mexico State Police called Reeb during the trial and told her the sheriff’s office was rejecting calls for service, she said during an interview, adding that the deputies weren’t doing their jobs and were at the courthouse supporting Lujan.

She said she was uncomfortable with deputies being in charge of security in the courthouse where the trial was taking place, saying they were biased in their security enforcement. Deputies allegedly scrutinized one of her investigators they thought was with the Taos County Sheriff’s Office, she said.

The Taos County Sheriff’s Office was one of the law enforcement agencies that helped serve Lujan with search warrants and was there during his arrest.

Bowles blasted the motions.

“That’s a real swipe at law enforcement in that motion because they did a really professional job in that trial. I have nothing but praise for all of them,” he said.

Bowles said he didn’t witness any of the alleged wrongdoing Reeb cited in her motion. He also said she should have brought up concerns to the judge at the time she noticed them.

Other jurors had already made up their minds about the case before deliberations started and they heard all the evidence, according to the motions, and some jurors also used outside information during their deliberations due to media coverage.

A juror was dismissed during the trial for allegedly lying about having knowledge of the case, according to the motion.

“There’s a little bit of protecting the integrity of the process,” Reeb said. “And protecting the jurors just in their deliberations, which is why I want to move somewhere where there’s no press, and it’s a fair trial for us, and it’s a fair trial for him.”

 

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