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Evidence ruling wrong, state Court of Appeals rules

SANTA FE – The New Mexico Court of Appeals has ruled that a Santa Fe judge erred in the trial of vehicular homicide defendant Juan de Dios Cordova by not suppressing evidence from the warrantless search of Cordova’s home that resulted in his arrest.

Cordova was convicted three years ago of vehicular homicide and other charges in the 2011 death of motorcyclist Mark Wolfe of Algodones and was given a 29-year prison sentence. It was not immediately clear whether the Appeals Court’s ruling will result in a new trial for Cordova, but it raises that possibility.

District Attorney Angela “Spence” Pacheco said Tuesday that her staff will ask the state Supreme Court to take up the case. “If we have to retry it, we will retry it,” she said. Pacheco noted that Cordova will remain behind bars for now.

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The state Court of Appeals has ruled against some of the evidence used to convict Juan de Dios Cordova, shown hear at a 2011 court hearing, of vehicular homicide and other charges. He was accused of driving truck and striking a group of motorcyclists on the High Road to Taos, killing one of them. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Public defender Damian Horne, who represented Cordova, said he expects the high-profile case to be retried, without the evidence the appeals court rejected.

“I feel nothing but pain for the victims of the crash,” Horne said. But he said Cordova’s “sacred rights” against improper search, guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, were violated in the search of his house by Rio Arriba County deputies shortly after the fatal wreck.

Cordova was accused of driving drunk and killing Wolfe as Wolfe, his wife and friends were on a motorcycle ride on the High Road to Taos, near the community of Cordova, over Memorial Day weekend.

After the crash, responding deputies went to Cordova’s nearby house after they’d determined that the truck that hit the motorcyclists – abandoned near the scene – belonged to Cordova.

The deputies knocked, announced their presence and walked in with guns drawn and found Cordova lying on a bed. Cordova contended his truck had been stolen but was detained for questioning. Deputies took keys from him, and one was later found to fit the wrecked truck. He was arrested, charged and found to have a blood alcohol content nearly twice the state’s presumed level of intoxication.

Before trial, the defense asked District Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer to suppress any evidence from the deputies’ entry into Cordova’s house because the deputies entered without a warrant.

Prosecutors argued the entry was justified under “the emergency assistance doctrine,” as deputies were concerned for Cordova’s welfare.

The ruling by a three-judge Court of Appeals panel, written by Judge Cynthia Fry and dated Thursday, said the only information deputies had at the time was that Cordova’s truck was involved in the accident and three people abandoned the truck and ran away. They didn’t know if Cordova was the driver or that he’d been seriously injured, and there was no blood or other evidence in the truck indicating anybody in the vehicle had been hurt, the ruling says.

No one who saw the three people leaving the truck said they looked hurt, and there was no trail of blood leading to the house, the Appeals Court panel noted. Deputies testified at trial that Cordova had a cut on his forehead, but a doctor who saw him after his arrest couldn’t recall the cut.

The Appeals Court concluded “that the deputies did not have reasonable grounds to believe that the Defendant (Cordova) might have been injured to an extent requiring their immediate entry and assistance.” So Judge Marlowe Sommer erroneously denied the defense motion to suppress evidence resulting from the deputies’ “unreasonable entry into the Defendant’s home,” the decision says.

The evidence now under a legal cloud includes the key to the truck that Cordova had in his pocket and the fact that Cordova volunteered the comment that his truck had been stolen before he was asked about it. The ruling also calls into question the circumstances of how Cordova was arrested and tested for being drunk.

Other issues

During long court proceedings in Cordova’s case, several issues were raised about the investigation of the crash – including the loss of Cordova’s truck as evidence, when it was destroyed by a towing yard. But in addition to the vehicular homicide charge, he was found guilty of two counts of great bodily injury by vehicle, two counts of aggravated DWI and one count of knowingly leaving the scene of an accident.

Wolfe; his wife, Debbie Hill; and four friends – members of the Duke City Drifters, an Albuquerque-based motorcycle club that Wolfe led – were taking a motorcycle trip through northern New Mexico when the pickup investigators say was driven by a drunken Cordova crossed the center line. The truck plowed into the lead bike, killing Wolfe, 51, a mechanic and veteran who loved New Mexico history.

Hill, riding on the back of Wolfe’s bike, was seriously injured. One of the other riders called the crash “a nightmare.”

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