Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
LOS LUNAS – A jury found Leland Hust not guilty of first-degree murder and deadlocked on two other felony charges in the 2018 rape and strangulation death of a 6-year-old girl in Rio Rancho.
Jurors deliberated for 17 hours over three days before telling a judge they were hopelessly deadlocked on the charges of child abuse resulting in death and criminal sexual penetration of a child.
Prosecutors said they plan to seek a new trial on those charges.
Hust cried and appeared relieved after Judge George P. Eichwald read the jury’s verdict. Members of his family also cried after the verdict. None agreed to speak with the Journal after the trial.
The verdict came nearly three years after Ariana “Jade” Romeo was found dead and bloodied Oct. 11, 2018, in a bedroom of the Rio Rancho house she and her mother shared with Hust and seven others.
A forensic examination found evidence that she had been raped and strangled or smothered to death.
Ariana’s mother, Stephanie Romeo, was not in the courtroom Wednesday. Romeo attended much of the trial wearing a child’s backpack she said belonged to her daughter.
Deputy District Attorney Jessica Martinez said she was disappointed with the verdict and planned to seek a new trial on the two charges on which the jury deadlocked.
“We’ll review our evidence and do a better job next time,” Martinez said. “All the evidence we have points only to (Hust).”
A retrial will take place no sooner than six months from now, she said. Hust will remain in custody in the meantime.
Hust’s attorneys said they were pleased by the single not-guilty verdict for first-degree murder.
“This is the case of a diligent jury that took their time,” attorney Michael Rosenfield said. The verdict shows that the jury system works, he said.
Testimony began in the trial on June 9.
Jurors were instructed to consider three criminal charges: Count 1 was intentional abuse of a child resulting in death or, in the alternative, first-degree murder during the commission of criminal sexual penetration. Count 2 was first-degree criminal sexual penetration of a child under 13.
Hust faced a minimum sentence of 35 years in prison if he had been convicted of either the first-degree murder or child abuse charge. Criminal sexual penetration of a child carries a minimum sentence of 18 years.
Jurors sent the judge several questions Monday, including one less than three hours into deliberations, suggesting that they were deadlocked and asking the judge if they could give up.
Eichwald told them to continue deliberating. Jurors asked no questions during the final two days of deliberations.
Prosecutors told jurors during closing arguments Monday that Hust was the person with the best opportunity to attack Ariana while other members of the household were either away from the house or asleep.
Ariana’s mother was working at a Rio Rancho brew pub and routinely returned home at about 3 a.m., according to testimony.
Deputy District Attorney Jessica Martinez told jurors that Hust was “obsessed” with Ariana and took advantage of the time alone to attack the girl.
Graham Dumas, one of Hust’s attorneys, told jurors that an older household member was more likely than Hust to have attacked Ariana. He identified Winston Scates Sr., who owns the house where Ariana was killed, as the most likely attacker.
Scates, 65, pleaded guilty in 2019 to sexual contact of a minor, a third-degree felony, for inappropriately touching a female family member. He received a four-year suspended sentence in that case.
Much of the testimony during Hust’s trial focused on DNA evidence gathered in Ariana’s bedroom and from her body. No semen was found at the scene, witnesses testified.
Prosecutors told jurors that Hust was the only household member who could not be excluded as a contributor to DNA evidence found at the scene.
Hust’s attorneys countered that the DNA evidence did not conclusively identify Hust as the attacker and that, as a frequent visitor to Ariana’s room, his genetic material could have been transferred to the girl’s body by someone else.
Jurors also listened to hours of recorded video interviews with Hust, including a six-hour interview with Rio Rancho detectives the day of his arrest in October 2018, about two months after Ariana’s death.
Hust’s attorneys characterized the interview as a hardball “interrogation” in which detectives coerced Hust into making incriminating statements by overstating the strength of DNA evidence linking Hust to the attack.
Hust appeared distraught throughout much of the interview and said repeatedly that he didn’t remember attacking the girl.
Detectives accused him of lying or repressing memories of Ariana’s death.