Isaias Lobato-Rodriguez asks for reconsideration after guilty verdict

• A jury found Isaias Lobato-Rodriguez guilty of second-degree murder
• His attorney wants a mistrial for three issues, including a lack of a self defense instruction

DEMING, N.M. — A Florida man is asking for a mistrial, after a jury found him guilty of second-degree murder for the strangling death of a woman outside Hachita in 2017.

The jury found Isaias Lobato-Rodriguez guilty of second-degree murder on Aug. 20, 2020, following a four-day trial and a single hour of jury deliberation, according to logs of the trial.

Isaias Loabto-Rodriguez

Lobato-Rodriguez’s attorney, George Harrison, gave three reasons for a new trial in his motion:

• An improper comment by prosecutor Matthew Bradburn, during opening statement over Lobato-Rodriguez asserting his right to remain silent, citing the 2007 case State v. Rodriguez.

• A failure to correct an improper translation in which Lobato-Rodriguez mumbled that he thought the victim told him he would “be dead that day.”

• The denial of a previous motion to suppress, previously denied twice by the judge.

A hearing on the motion to reconsider is set for 10 a.m., Oct. 26, 2020, along with his sentencing hearing.

On March 17, 2017, Isaias Lobato-Rodriguez, of Florida, allegedly tied a belt around Connie Lopez’s neck, strangling her in the front seat of her rented mini-van, two miles east of Hachita in Grant County, according to a statement of probable cause.

He allegedly told two Border Patrol agents, one of whom found Lopez’s body, that she was going to kill him and his family and that he was with other people in a berm in the desert. The agents could find neither footprints nor signs of anyone else.

For more details on the killing of Connie Lopez, see the case write-up.

Improper comment

Harrison wrote in this motion that telling the jury that Lobato-Rodriguez asserted his right to remain silent was not a harmless error. Specifically, Bradburn said:

Agent (Moises) Mascorro then went to the Deming State Police office which is where Mr. Lobato Rodriguez has been taken from the scene. He got brought back from there to Deming and he wasn’t free to leave, and he he he was the suspect I mean, that’s it, and so, Mr. Agent Mascorro did engage in conversation with Mr. Lobato Rodriguez and Mr. Lobato Rodriguez asserted his right to remain silent.”

The prohibition on mentioning a defendant asserting his right to remain silent has existed since the Miranda rights were established and is “well known to all attorneys,” Harrison wrote.

“There is no reason to mention exercising Miranda rights in opening statement other than to prejudice the defendant,” he wrote.

After Bradburn made the statement, Harrison moved for a mistrial, which the judge denied.

In a response to the motion to reconsider, Bradburn wrote that the judge “fully considered” the objection and request for a mistrial and evaluated it according to another 2007 case, State v. Pacheco, and the judge offered a “curative instruction” which Harrison objected.

“The Court fully considered this issue on more than one occasion during trial and made its ruling,” Bradburn wrote. “There is nothing asserted by the defendant in his Motion to Reconsider to justify the Court reversing its trial ruling.”

Translation error

Harrison wrote that Lobato-Rodriguez said the victim, Connie Lopez, told him “he would be dead that day.” The interpreter did not translate the phrase during the “case in chief” and the statement was “essential to the defense theory of the case.”

“The interpreter did interpret other statements of the defendant which had much different meaning without that statement. Counsel for the defendant told the Court that some statements were not being interpreted but could not tell the substance. The defendant had no way to know his statement was not translated for the jury,” Harrison wrote.

Interpreter Heidi Swanson tried to clarify the problem later, outside of the presence of the jury. Harrison wrote, from the tapes of the trial:

“-Heidi Swanson interpreter: The interpreter needs to clarify statement of earlier what have done I was interpreting for Mr. Lobato he was asked am about and when he was going to go with Mrs. Connie, Ms. Connie; and about the mountains and I don’t remember know exactly what the whole statement that was asked, but he said that he was going to go and that she asked him to look to the right to see that beautiful or the pretty mountains and because he was never going to see it again and then at that point he said mumbled something and the interpreter I asked for repetition he was asked for repetition but he did not repeat the same statement so interpreter I just interpreted what he had said which he did not repeat the part which where she said that he was not going to see the mountains anymore because he was going to be dead and so that part was not repeated for Mr. Lobato and so the interpreter did not repeat that part.”

Bradburn said in closing statements that Lobato-Rodriguez did not say Lopez posed a threat, Harrison wrote.

“The State conceded that the omitted testimony would change the course of the trial during argument to correct the interpretation,” Harrison wrote.

Judge Jared Hofacket also denied a a self defense jury instruction, Harrison wrote.

Harrison also filed a motion specifically to correct the error.

Bradburn wrote in response that Hofacket found Lobato-Rodriguez “had a full and fair opportunity to testify on cross examination” and on re-direct.

“Whatever the claimed shortcomings of the court interpreter, the defendant and his attorney had a complete opportunity to communicate the defendant’s version of events to the jury,” Bradburn wrote. “Noteworthy in this connection, the defendant only articulated this claim to the Court after the close of all evidence in the case. ”

Motion to suppress

Harrison also raised a previous motion to suppress that had been twice denied before, where he argued that Lobato-Rodriguez was in custody when he was questioned by U.S. Border Patrol agents.

“This is a Mexican National who came to a Border Patrol Agent and admitted he was here illegally. He was not free to go. He was ordered to sit on the ground. At trial the Court learned that the statements made to the first officer were not I killed her but an untranslatable phrase. Further questioning after being detained by border Patrol should be suppressed. When mirandized he requested an attorney,” Harrison wrote.

Bradburn wrote in response that the judge “should decline the defendant’s invitation to second guess itself” and the motion presented no new issues.

Continue reading “Isaias Lobato-Rodriguez asks for reconsideration after guilty verdict”

Trial date set for Florida man accused of strangling woman near Hachita

See the case write-up

SILVER CITY, N.M. — A Florida man is set to go to trial on a charge of murder in August, assuming he does not take a plea deal during a pre-trial video conference set for July 27, 2020.

Isaias Lobato-Rodriguez

On March 17, 2017, Isaias Lobato-Rodriguez, 56, allegedly tied a belt around Connie Lopez’s neck, strangling her in the front seat of her rented mini-van, two miles east of Hachita in Grant County.

Lobato-Rodriguez’s murder trial had previously been set back after his attorney left the case to take a job with the state and after issues with an expert interpreter. He was initially interrogated by Border Patrol agents in Spanish, the subject of a motion to suppress.

His trial had previously been set for Oct. 7, 2019, a date that was vacated after his new attorney, Chico Gallegosfiled a motion to continue the jury trial. He wrote that it “became clear” that he needed to hire an expert witness to translate what was said in English, and in Spanish, for the various communications between border patrol agents and Lobato-Rodriguez.

A new trial date of Aug. 17 to 21, 2020, was set by the judge on Dec. 4, 2019. Then on Jan. 21, 2020, a pre-trial conference and plea hearing was set for July 27, 2020 at the district courthouse in Silver City.

On June 5, 2020, the court clerk entered an amended notice of a pre-trial conference and plea hearing set for 1 p.m., July 27, 2020, done via video conference. The hearing is set for 15 minutes.

It is not clear from the court documents and filings if Lobato-Rodriguez plans to plead guilty or if it is a perfunctory hearing before the trial. The hearing is set for 15 minutes.

According to the docket, most of the previous pre-trial conferences have also been labeled as plea hearings.

The trial is still set for Aug. 17, according to the docket.

Continue reading “Trial date set for Florida man accused of strangling woman near Hachita”

Joel Arciniega-Saenz: Benjamin Montoya — 4-22-2017

Suspect: Joel Arciniega-Saenz (charges dismissed)

Victim: Benjamin Montoya, 21

Charges: First-degree murder (dismissed)

Status: Dismissed by prosecutors on April 20, 2018

Date of incident: April 22, 2017

Agency: Las Cruces Police Department

Location: 2205 W Picacho Ave #105, Las Cruces, NM, 88007

Magistrate case number: M-14-FR-2017-00305

District case number: D-307-CR-201700437

Prosecutor: Rebecca Duffin

Summary

On April 22, 2017, Benjamin Montoya and his pregnant girlfriend were staying at their friend Joel Arciniega-Saenz’s motel room.

After a fight, someone shot Montoya in the chest. Arciniega-Saenz claimed a petite woman shot his friend, but Montoya’s girlfriend, Dakota Ocampo, alleged that Arciniega-Saenz was the shooter.

She had previously spurned Arciniega-Saenz’s affections and told him she viewed him as a brother.

Arciniega-Saenz was charged with an open count of murder and was indicted on a charge of first-degree murder on May 4, 2017 according to the docket.

Prosecutor Rebecca Duffin dismissed the case on April 20, 2018, without prejudice, “because new information has come to light that requires further investigation in this matter.”

[cmtoc_table_of_contents]

The incident

On April 22, 2017, Benjamin Montoya was shot in the chest at the Town House Motel on West Picacho in Las Cruces.

With him were his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Dakota Ocampo and his friend, Joel Arciniega-Saenz, Las Cruces Police Department Detective Ricky Bardwell wrote in an affidavit for Arciniega-Saenz’s arrest.

All of them were at Arciniega-Saenz’s room at the motel. Ocampo and Montoya had come to spend the night there.

Alleged Eye Witness Dakota Ocampo’s version

Joel Arciniega-Saenz

Ocampo told Bardwell that she has been friends with Arciniega-Saenz for the past five years and she considered him to be a brother. At the same time, she had been in the relationship with Montoya for the past few months, Bardwell wrote, based on his interview with Ocampo.

“(Joel) met with her at Joel’s apartment to stay with her,” Bardwell wrote. “(Joel) has had a crush on her, and she told him she valued for friendship too much and did not to ruin it.”

Ocampo treated Arciniega-Saenz as a confidante, and told him all about her intimate relations.

She claimed that she fell asleep when she woke to Montoya arguing with a tall, thin man with shaggy hair whom she did not know. Because she did not have her glasses on, she could not recognize the man’s face, but noticed he was wearing a white shirt.

“(During) the argument between Benjamin and the Male she is struck in the mouth,” Bardwell wrote. “(Benjamin) and the male begin got physically (sic) fight. The fight moved towards the area where the refrigerator is located, and eventually back towards the bed.”

Montoya is pushed onto the bed and the unknown man pulled a gun and shot him, then ran out of the apartment.

“(Benjamin) screams for help, and walks out of the apartment towards the parking lot,” Bardwell wrote.

Shortly thereafter, Ocampo alleged that Arciniega-Saenz walked into the apartment, told her not to worry and to stay in the apartment before walking back outside.

“(Dakota) mentioned to the Affiant Benjamin had confronted her the previous night about being pregnant, and it had become a topic of conversation throughout the night,” Bardwell wrote. “Affiant asked Dakota if she is able to recognize people in the same room without her seeing glasses? She stated yes.”

She told Bardwell that the assailant was wearing the same clothes as Arciniega-Saenz, then said she was only 60 percent sure.

“Affiant asked if Joel was the person who shot Benjamin?” Bardwell wrote. “Dakota began to cry and stated yes.”

Interrogation of Joel Arciniega-Saenz

When he talked to Arciniega-Saenz, the latter allegedly said that Montoya and Ocampo were inside sleeping when he woke up and went outside to smoke. Bardwell did not write if he read Arciniega-Saenz his Miranda rights before questioning him.

“(He) sees a female approach him and ask for Dakota,” Bardwell wrote. “He thinks she is a friend of Dakota, and allows her to enter the apartment. (During) this time Benjamin and Dakota are still asleep. (While) he was outside doing his thing, he began to hear arguing coming from inside the apartment.”

He allegedly told Bardwell he heard a gunshot, hid behind a bush and watched as the skinny woman, whom he described as resembling a drug addict, ran out of the apartment, into the parking lot and left in a silver car. He also claimed he never approached Montoya or went back into the apartment.

Interview of neighbor Annette Martinez

His neighbor, Annette Martinez, told Bardwell that Arciniega-Saenz lives a few doors down from her.

Town house motel
Town House Motel, Las Cruces, NM. Photo by Thomas Hawk/Flickr. CC BY-NC

“(For) several days, Mrs. Martinez has been hearing Joel, Dakota and Benjamin argue, yell or make a commotion,” Bardwell wrote, based on his conversation with Martinez. “(On) today’s date, Mrs. Martinez hears Dakota and Benjamin arguing outside of room 105, which is Joel’s room. (They) continued to argue but took the argument back into the house where she could still hear them.”

Shortly after, she heard a bang. Initially she did not see anything. A short time later, Ocampo and Arciniega-Saenz were allegedly standing over Montoya’s body, he wrote.

“(Mrs.) Martinez is familiar with Joel and has witnessed him to become more aggressive lately and that he has recently made comments as to wanting to kill someone,” Bardwell wrote.

Bardwell claimed in the affidavit that Montoya’s injuries were not consistent with the shot being fired by a petite woman. He did not list his reasoning.

“Affiant observed a red substance to be blood on Joel’s sleeve, which is not consistent with the statement Joel gave of not making contact with Benjamin or enter the apartment after he is shot,” Bardwell wrote. “(Joel’s) statement and knowledge of the bullet wound to Benjamin is not consistent with him not making contact with Benjamin or entering the room after he is shot.”

When he looked at the bottom of Arciniega-Saenz’s shoes, he allegedly saw blood, as well as a large amount of blood at the entrance to the apartment, he wrote.

“Upon observation of Dakota, injuries were observed upon her body to include scratches upon her neck and an injury upon her mouth,” Bardwell wrote. “Due to affiant’s training and experience, the injuries that were observed were consistent to someone being involved in a physical domestic altercation which is consistent to Mrs. Martinez’s observations.”

Arciniega-Saenz was charged with an open count of murder.

PC Joel Arciniega-Saenz - 4-24-2017

 

Case dismissed

On June 1, 2017, a Las Cruces grand jury indicted Joel Arciniega-Saenz on a single charge of first-degree murder.

On Oct. 20, 2017, his attorney, George Harrison, filed a motion to review the conditions of his release. Arciniega-Saenz had previously been ordered held on a $500,000 bond. In his motion, he wrote that the prosecution had not provided any forensic evidence and that the evidence that was collected corroborated his statement to police and asked the bail be reduced to $10,000.

According to Det. Ricky Bardwell, Arciniega-Saenz allegedly said a skinny woman came up to him while he was outside smoking, then went into the room he was staying in. He heard an argument, then a gunshot. He hid behind a plant, then saw the skinny woman run out of the room.

Following a hearing on Nov. 27, 2017, the District Court judge reduced his bail to $10,000, the amount requested by the defense.

On Dec. 1, 2018, prosecutor David Ruark, filling in for Rebecca Duffin, filed an emergency motion to reconsider a previous motion for a continuance for a trial that was scheduled to start on Dec. 4, 2017. He wrote that the prosecution’s case was “almost entirely” dependent on Ocampo’s testimony. He was filling in for Duffin because she had a family emergency.

Investigators with the Third Judicial District Attorney’s Office thought Ocampo was being held in a jail in El Paso, Texas, but found she had been released. Subsequently she was arrested in Las Cruces and police allegedly found a .38-caliber pistol on her, the same caliber weapon used to kill Montoya. The gun used was never recovered from the scene.

The trial was moved to Jan. 29, 2018 and on Jan. 24, 2018, Duffin filed a motion to continue the case a second time because detectives received information about another possible witness.

“The State is attempting to follow up on the latest lead and determine if there is a witness with either inculpatory or exculpatory information about the crime,” Duffin wrote.

She wrote she also sprained her ankle and would be in an ankle boot during the duration of the trial, which would hinder her ability to prosecute the case.

The same day, the judge reduced his bond to $2,500.

On April 20, 2018, Duffin dismissed the charges.

Duffin wrote she was dismissing the case, without prejudice, “because new information has come to light that requires further investigation in this matter.”

See the case documents on Google Drive

Joel Arciniega-Saenz - 4-20-2018 - Nolle Prosequi

Isaias Lobato-Rodriguez: Connie Lopez — 3-17-2017

Suspect: Isaias Lobato-Rodriguez

Victim: Connie Lopez, 57

Charges: First-degree murder

Status:Guilty verdict, lesser included offense of second-degree murder

Date of incident: March 17, 2017

Location: Mile marker 48 on Highway 9 near Hachita, Grant County

Agency: State Police

Magistrate case number: M-19-FR-201700086

District case number: D-608-CR-2017-00069

Judicial district: Sixth Judicial District

Prosecutor: Matthew Bradburn

Prosecuting agency: Sixth Judicial District Attorney’s Office

 

Summary

On March 17, 2017, Isaias Lobato-Rodriguez, of Florida, allegedly tied a belt around Connie Lopez’s neck, strangling her in the front seat of her rented mini-van, two miles east of Hachita in Grant County.

He allegedly told two Border Patrol agents, one of whom found Lopez’s body, that she was going to kill him and his family and that he was with other people in a berm in the desert. The agents could find neither footprints nor signs of anyone else.

Based on evidence at the scene, it appeared the two had been traveling west from Florida.

On April 7, a preliminary hearing was held. The judge ordered Lobato-Rodriguez, who declared to the agents that he is in the country illegally, be bound over on a charge of first-degree murder.

On April 19, 2017, prosecutors filed a criminal information in District Court charging him with first-degree murder.

[cmtoc_table_of_contents]

The incident

Border Patrol Agent John Enriquez was driving to Hachita to get acquainted with the area because he had just transferred over, March 17, 2017. On his drive, two miles east of Hachita, he saw a grey Chrysler mini-van parked on the side of the road. He kept on driving.

At 4 p.m., he headed back the way he came. This time, the mini-van’s front door was open and a person was slouched in the driver’s seat, State Police Agent Moises Mascorro wrote in a statement of probable cause for Isaias Lobato-Rodriguez’s arrest.

Isaias Lobato-Rodriguez

He turned around, parked, and approached the vehicle, Mascorro wrote, referring to his conversation with Enriquez.

“As got close to the driver, he noticed it was a female with a belt around her neck,” Mascorro wrote. “She was deceased.”

The woman would later be identified as Connie Lopez, a Florida resident, with a hotel reservation in El Paso, Texas.

While he was calling in the situation to his dispatchers, he was allegedly approached by Lobato-Rodriguez, who allegedly told Enriquez he is an illegal alien.

Shortly thereafter, Border Patrol Agent Adrian Garcia arrived to help Enriquez.

“Mr. Rodriguez mumbled to them, stating he killed her because she was going to kill his family,” Mascorro wrote. “He also stated there were other people traveling with him in a white pick-up. and some were hiding in the berm in the desert.”

Garcia told Mascorro much the same, although he described the mumbling as being “really fast.” He also said that Lobato-Rodriguez allegedly said he killed Lopez because she was going to kill him and his family, not just his family.

After he mumbled about her going to kill him, Garcia handcuffed him and read him his Miranda rights.

“Agent Garcia went and looked for tracks but was only able to locate Mr. Rodriguez’s tracks,” Mascorro wrote.

Mascorro found documents in the vehicle belonging to Lobato-Rodriguez as well and they also indicated he lived in Florida, like Lopez. Mascorro did not specify if Lopez and Lobato-Rodriguez were in a relationship or if they were traveling together.

“Documents inside the vehicle showed Connie Lopez was traveling from Florida on March 15, 2017 heading westbound,” Mascorro wrote.

After the agents took Lobato-Rodriguez to the State Police Office in Deming, Mascorro tried to interview him, but Lobato-Rodriguez said he wanted an attorney present. This ended the conversation because he had asserted his Miranda rights.

Probable cause - Isaias Lobato-Rodriguez

 

Missed trial dates

On April 7, 2017, a preliminary hearing in the case was held and Lobato-Rodriguez was ordered bound over to district court on a charge of first-degree murder.

On April 19, 2017, prosecutors filed a criminal information in district court charging Lobato-Rodriguez with first-degree murder.

On June 14, 2018, Lobato-Rodriguez’s attorney at the time, George Harrison, filed a motion to suppress his statements. In a 13-page order, District Court Judge Jarod Hofacket bemoaned how late the motion to suppress was filed but ultimately concluded that all interrogations of Lobato-Rodriguez were legal.

Harrison filed a second motion to suppress on Aug. 13, 2018, again focusing on the interrogation by the two border patrol agents. On Aug. 21, 2018, Hofacket again denied the motion to suppress and wrote that Harrison had not presented new evidence or new circumstances.

On Aug. 22, 2018, Harrison filed a motion to withdraw because he got a job working for the state of New Mexico.

On Oct. 3, 2019, Lobato-Rodriguez’s new attorney, Chico Gallegos, filed a motion to continue the jury trial, set for Oct. 7, 2019. He wrote that it “became clear” that he needed to hire an expert witness to translate what was said in English, and in Spanish, for the various communications between border patrol agents and Lobato-Rodriguez.

Plea hearing/trial date

On Dec. 4, 2019, a jury trial was set for August 17 through 21, 2020, and a pre-trial conference for July 20, 2020, at the district court in Deming.

On Jan. 21, 2020, the judge set a plea hearing and pre-trial conference for July 27, 2020, at the district courthouse in Silver City.

On June 5, 2020, the court clerk entered an amended notice of a pre-trial conference and plea hearing set for 1 p.m., July 27, 2020, done via video conference. The hearing is set for 15 minutes.

It is not clear from the court documents and filings if Lobato-Rodriguez plans to plead guilty or if it is a perfunctory hearing before the trial. The hearing is set for 15 minutes.

According to the docket, most of the previous pre-trial conferences have been also labeled as plea hearings.

The trial is still set for Aug. 17, according to the docket.

See the case documents on Google Drive or Document Cloud