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Two Bernalillo County corrections officers on trial in the 2019 death of a jail inmate performed as trained when confronted with a man who was “delusional, hallucinating, combative” and high on methamphetamine, a defense attorney told jurors Tuesday.
Prosecutors allege that Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center officer Jonathan Sandoval, acting under his supervisor’s orders, pressed his knee into Vicente Villela’s back until the inmate lost consciousness and died.
Attorneys made opening statements Tuesday in the trial of Sandoval, 35, and his supervisor, Keith Brandon, 46, who are each charged with involuntary manslaughter, a fourth-degree felony, in Villela’s Feb. 2, 2019, death.
A fourth-degree felony is punishable by one to two years in prison.
Both officers remain on paid administrative leave, Bernalillo County spokeswoman Tia Bland said Tuesday.
Assistant Attorney General Zach Jones said in his opening statements that Villela, 37, was “not compliant but he was not fighting” as six hefty corrections officers moved him from MDC’s booking area to a psychiatric cell.
Sandoval “placed his knee square, and with concentrated force, into the back of Vicente Villela,” Jones told jurors. “That knee to the back restricted Vicente’s ability to breathe, and officer Sandoval thus caused the death of Vicente Villela.”
Sandoval took the action “because he was ordered to do so by Lt. Brandon, who gave him the unorthodox order, ‘sit on him,’ ” Jones said.
Villela said “I can’t breathe” at least six times while officers held the handcuffed and shackled inmate on the floor of a cell at MDC, Jones said.
Sandoval’s attorney, Sam Bregman, told jurors that Villela was largely responsible for his own death because he had a high level of methamphetamine that alone could have caused him to stop breathing.
“Jon Sandoval is a 10-year corrections officer who was simply doing his job pursuant to his training and pursuant to instructions given to him by his supervisor,” Bregman said in his opening statement.
“Vicente Villela, the inmate, had toxic levels of methamphetamine in his body,” Bregman told jurors.
“He was hallucinating. He was delusional. He was combative. And the officers were doing their best to do their job.”
Villela’s death “was more the result of (Villela’s) actions as opposed to anyone else’s,” Bregman said.
Bregman also said prosecutors can offer no evidence that any action taken by corrections officers caused Villela’s death.
Villela, a father of three, was booked into MDC about 5 p.m. the day of his death on charges of breaking and entering, burglary, armed robbery, and unlawful taking of a motor vehicle.
According to incident reports, he was disoriented. MDC officers decided to put him into a clinical seclusion cell in the Psychiatric Acute Care, or PAC, unit because he appeared “either high on a substance or has a serious mental illness.”
Jurors on Tuesday watched a video recording of Villela’s death. The recording showed officers attempting to move him from the booking area to the clinical seclusion cell.
The graphic footage showed that Villela became resistant as six officers placed him in the cell. The officers pinned him to the floor while they attempted to remove his cuffs and shackles.
Villela can be heard saying “I can’t breathe” several times while an officer appeared to kneel on his back. After several minutes, Villela stopped moving and officers attempted to revive him with chest compressions and oxygen.
Several members of Villela’s family seated in the gallery began weeping as prosecutors played the video for jurors.
Brandon’s attorney, John D’Amato, told jurors in his opening statement that the video has “significant” time gaps, and also fails to show the larger context of what officers were doing and saying outside the frame of the video.
MDC corrections officer Walter Pagan, who recorded two of the videos, testified Tuesday that his hand-held camera ran out of storage while officers had Villela pinned on the floor, leaving a gap of 3 to 5 minutes unrecorded during the fatal incident.
The Office of the Medical Investigator classified Villela’s death as a homicide. An autopsy report said he died of “mechanical asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint” with “toxic effects of methamphetamine” as a contributing factor.
Villela’s family last year reached a $4.56 million settlement in a wrongful death lawsuit against Bernalillo County and Centurion Detention Health Care Services, which provided medical services at MDC at the time of Villela’s death.
Centurion announced in April 2021 that it intended to leave MDC within six months – more than a year before the end of the company’s contract.
The St. Louis-based company was awarded the contract to provide medical, dental and mental health services at the jail in 2018.