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20-year-old can be tried, sentenced as adult in 2011 triple slayings in Santa Fe County

SANTA FE – Though just 16 at the time of the three murders he is accused of committing, now 20-year-old Nicholas Ortiz can be tried and sentenced as an adult under New Mexico law.

Ortiz was arrested last Friday by New Mexico State Police and charged with three counts of first-degree murder, one count of tampering with evidence and one count of bribery or intimidation of a witness in the triple murder of a family in northern Santa Fe County in 2011.

According to State Police, Ortiz used a pickax to kill 55-year-old Lloyd Ortiz; his wife, 53-year-old Dixie Ortiz; and 21-year-old Steven Ortiz, their adopted son, at their El Rancho home, apparently as part of a failed plan to steal money from a safe to buy drugs. While he shares the same surname, Nicholas Ortiz was not related to the murder victims.

Santa Fe District Attorney Angela “Spence” Pacheco said Tuesday that the State Police brought the first-degree murder charges after consultation with the DA’s Office.

However, the charges could change once the case is moved out of magistrate court and into the higher state district court. For district court, Pacheco’s office could leave charges to a grand jury. Whether to seek an indictment from a grand jury “is a charging decision that our office will make, but no formal decision has been made yet,” she said.

Another route is a preliminary hearing, where charges go to a judge for a decision. “If there’s a preliminary hearing in district court, the DA will present charges and provide evidence to support those charges, and the judge will make a final decision,” she said.

Under the children’s code in New Mexico state law, a juvenile like Nicholas Ortiz was when the murders were committed is classified either as a youthful offender or a serious youthful offender.

State law defines a serious youthful offender as someone 14-18 years old who is “charged with and indicted or bound over for trial for first-degree murder” – a status that for now applies to Ortiz.

If a serious youthful offender is convicted of first-degree murder, that person is to be sentenced as an adult, though a district court judge would have more discretion for reducing the sentence than with an adult convicted of the same charge, according to Pacheco.

In this scenario, whether the defendant is sentenced as an adult or as a juvenile is not contingent on a judge’s determination of whether the teen is amenable to treatment.

Under current state law, that applies in cases where the teen is convicted of less than first-degree murder, on charges such as second-degree murder or manslaughter. If found amenable to treatment, the defendant convicted of the lesser charges is sentenced as a juvenile.

Juvenile sentencing provides for the defendant to be held by the state Children, Youth and Families Department only until age 21. Ortiz turns 21 in November. For adults, a first-degree murder conviction means a life sentence, which in New Mexico is 30 years in prison before eligibility for parole.

State law says that anyone ages 15-18 charged with second-degree murder or less would be defined as a youthful offender and would be charged in children’s court. “The trigger is the age and the nature and type of crime committed,” Pacheco said.

Even if his first-degree murder charges stick as he heads to trial, that doesn’t necessarily mean Ortiz, if he’s convicted, would face adult sanctions at sentencing. Absent a plea, a jury will have its say and could convict him on a charge less than first-degree murder. Then an amenability-to-treatment hearing would be held before sentencing. “It can get pretty complicated,” Pacheco said.