Supreme Court upholds Ameer Muhammad’s conviction for 2017 ABQ stabbing death

• The New Mexico Supreme Court upheld Ameer Muhammad‘s conviction on felony murder
• The justices rejected arguments that Muhammad’s mental illness prevented him from waiving his Miranda rights
• He received a mandatory life sentence, with parole after 30 years.

See the full case write-up or previous stories about this case

SANTA FE, N.M. — The New Mexico Supreme Court unanimously upheld the felony murder conviction of Muhammad Ameer, 26, who stabbed Aaron Sieben to death in 2017.

The justices rejected his defense attorney’s arguments, that District Court Judge Jacqueline Flores refusal to suppress Muhammad’s statement to the police and not allowing a self-defense instruction made the case worthy of a new trial.

Ameer Muhammad

Defense attorney Steven Forsberg wrote in the appeal that the statement should have been suppressed because Muhammad was “in the grips of severe mental illness” when he made the waiver of his Miranda rights and gave a statement to detectives.

Justice Barbara Vigil wrote in the opinion for the court that Flores rejected the initial argument to suppress the statement, “stating that without more information about Defendant’s apparent delusions there was not enough to conclude that those delusions impacted Defendant’s ability to waive his rights.”

She did not, however, address if it was made “knowingly and intelligently.”

In challenging the unsuppressed statement, Forsberg wrote that the Flores used the wrong legal standard to determine if it needed to be suppressed.

Vigil wrote that the defense argued that Muhammad thought it was pointless to exercise his right not to speak to detectives because he had delusions that they would hear his thoughts and therefore they already knew everything. She wrote:

“The recording of the interview at the MDC demonstrates that Defendant’s mental illness did not affect his understanding of his rights but rather his motivation for not exercising those rights. No other evidence was presented concerning Defendant’s claimed diagnosis of schizophrenia or its effect on his ability to comprehend his rights. Because the record otherwise supports the district court’s findings that Defendant was cogent and could accurately articulate his rights and the consequences of abandoning them, the totality of the circumstances demonstrates that Defendant’s waiver was knowing and intelligent.”

As for the argument that a self-defense instruction should have been given, there was no evidence that the Sieben, 30, ever had a weapon, even if he struck first.

“We have held that evidence of a simple battery against a defendant is insufficient for a reasonable jury to find that the defendant acted reasonably by responding with deadly force,” Vigil wrote, before quoting State v. Lucero, a 2010 case, which in turn quotes a 1996 case, State v. Duarte.

There was not enough evidence to support a self defense claim, she wrote.

The case

On July 27, 2018, a jury found Ameer, 26, guilty of felony murder and armed robbery, although the latter charge was dropped as the predicate felony for felony murder. The jury acquitted him on a charge of tampering with evidence.

According to court documents, victim Aaron Sieben and Ameer allegedly got into some kind of argument while Sieben was in his truck on March 19, 2017, parked at a Circle K gas station in Albuquerque.

After Ameer allegedly fled from Sieben, Sieben pursued him, leading to a fist fight. As the fight progressed, Ameer allegedly produced a knife and stabbed Sieben two to three times. After stabbing Sieben, Ameer allegedly took his wallet. Sieben died at the scene and Ameer allegedly fled, only to be arrested shortly thereafter.

District Judge Jacqueline Flores sentenced Ameer to life in prison, which is a term of 30 years, on Sept. 25, 2018, according to court documents.

Continue reading “Supreme Court upholds Ameer Muhammad’s conviction for 2017 ABQ stabbing death”

Oral arguments scheduled for Muhammad Ameer murder appeal

Muhammad Ameer is appealing two issues from his trial
• The case is scheduled for a year after the last brief was submitted to the court in July 2019

See the full case write-up
Update: Listen to the oral arguments

SANTA FE, N.M. — Justices will hear oral arguments in Muhammad Ameer‘s appeal of his felony murder conviction on July 7, 2020, although it may be done via teleconference.

Muhammad Ameer

The case is scheduled for oral arguments 10:15 a.m., July 7, 2020, but whether it will be in person or via video is still up in the air because of the coronavirus pandemic.

On July 27, 2018, a jury found Ameer, 26, guilty of felony murder and armed robbery, although the latter charge was dropped as the predicate felony for felony murder. The jury acquitted him on a charge of tampering with evidence.

According to court documents, victim Aaron Sieben and Ameer allegedly got into some kind of argument while Sieben was in his truck on March 19, 2017, parked at a Circle K gas station in Albuquerque.

After Ameer allegedly fled from Sieben, Sieben pursued him, leading to a fist fight. As the fight progressed, Ameer allegedly produced a knife and stabbed Sieben two to three times. After stabbing Sieben, Ameer allegedly took his wallet. Sieben died at the scene and Ameer allegedly fled, only to be arrested shortly thereafter.

District Judge Jacqueline Flores sentenced Ameer to life in prison, which is a term of 30 years, on Sept. 25, 2018, according to court documents.

Although four issues were initially raised in a statement of issues for Ameer’s automatic appeal to the Supreme Court, in the June 10, 2019 brief in chief, Assistant Appellate Defender Steven Forsberg, with the Law Office of the Public Defender, only challenged two issues: the judge not suppressing Ameer’s statement to the police and the lack of a self-defense instruction.

In challenging the unsuppressed statement, Forsberg wrote that the Flores used the wrong legal standard to determine if it needed to be suppressed.

A Miranda rights waiver has to be both voluntary and knowing and intelligent, but Flores stated she believed police coercion was required to suppress the statement. However, that is only required to find if a statement was given voluntarily; a statement can still fail to meet the knowing and intelligent threshold in the absence of coercion, Forsberg wrote.

He wrote that Ameer was “in the grips of severe mental illness” when he made the waiver.

The statement was also the only evidence Ameer was the initial aggressor. When the defense argued for a self-defense instruction, the judge said she could not discount his statement to police. Forsberg wrote:

None of the eyewitnesses saw what caused Ameer to flee from Mr. Sieben’s truck while Mr. Sieben chased him, but Ameer in his statement said he had held a knife to Mr. Sieben. None of the witnesses could provide a motive for those events, until Mr. Muhammad said during his statement, according to the detective, “that he wanted to get meth; to get high; to kill himself, and he made statements that he killed him because he did not want to continue to ask people for money.” [8 Tr. 23:24-25:15] Due to his mental state, Ameer’ s statements were not knowing (let alone reliable).

When the defense was arguing for a self-defense instruction, the trial court judge emphasized the importance of the statement: “I think the problem for me is you really want me to discount the Defendant’s statement, and I can’t” [8 Tr. 56:16-56:18] Ameer’s unknowing statement kneecapped any defense he might have had.

Forsberg wrote that the Supreme Court should either reverse his conviction and remand for a re-trial, with the statement suppressed, or remand the case to the District Court for a new hearing on the suppression issue.

Should the trial court, on remand, find the statement unknowing, then a new trial would be required. If, on the other hand, the trial court held that the statement was knowing and intelligent, then Mr. Muhammad could appeal that decision to this Court.

In the answer brief for the prosecution, filed June 20, 2019, Assistant Attorney General Maris Veidemanis wrote that, although Ameer was experiencing delusions during the police interrogation, he was “coherent and articulate” and that the defense presented no information that Ameer did not understand the Miranda warning.

If there had been an error, it wouldn’t have mattered because there was ample evidence to convict him of felony murder, predicated on armed robbery, Veidemanis wrote.

As to the self-defense instruction, Veidemanis wrote that really, the Flores’ decision was based on the lack of evidence that Ameer had been attacked and pointed to State v Abeyta, which states that self defense must be reasonable in relation to the threat posed and that excessive force in self defense “renders the entire action unlawful.”

On July 10, 2019, Forsberg filed a reply brief and focused on Veidemanis’ emphasis on the voluntariness of Ameer’s statement. He wrote that the trial court should be ordered to consider evidence of Ameer’s mental state in determining if he knowingly and intelligently waived his rights.

He wrote that Veidemanis’ claims that the case could have stood without his statement was contradicted by the trial prosecutor, who fought the suppression motion and highlighted the statement during his closing arguments.

The case is scheduled for oral arguments at 10:15 a.m., July 7, 2020.

Continue reading “Oral arguments scheduled for Muhammad Ameer murder appeal”

Ameer Muhammad: Aaron Sieben — 3-19-2017

 

Summary

On March 19, 2017, Aaron Sieben and Ameer Muhammad allegedly got into some kind of argument while Sieben was in his truck, parked at a Circle K gas station.

After Muhammad allegedly fled from Sieben, Sieben pursued him, leading to a fist fight. As the fight progressed, Muhammad allegedly produced a knife and stabbed Sieben two to three times. After stabbing Sieben, Muhammad allegedly took his wallet. Sieben died at the scene and Muhammad allegedly fled, only to be arrested shortly thereafter.

Muhammad was indicted by a grand jury on March 30, 2017, on first-degree murder or felony murder, armed robbery, tampering with evidence and shoplifting under $250. After multiple allegations of misconduct by the prosecution and defense, the Attorney General’s Office took over the prosecution. The defense also tried to suppress statements he made to a detective after he asserted his right to an attorney.

On July 27, 2018, a jury found Muhammad guilty of felony murder, armed robbery and shoplifting under $250 while finding him not guilty of tampering with evidence.

On Nov. 7, 2018, Muhammad’s attorneys appealed his conviction and on June 10, 2019, his attorneys filed a brief in chief, arguing his statements should have been suppressed and the judge should have given a self defense instruction to jurors.

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The incident

On March 19, 2017, Albuquerque Police Officers were called to the Circle K gas station at 900 Eubank Boulevard after a husband and wife called in a stabbing.

Ameer Muhammad

When officers arrived, they found Aaron Sieben, 30, dead on Lomas Boulevard NE, Detective Andrew Hsu wrote in a criminal complaint for Ameer Muhammad‘s arrest.

Multiple people were standing over Sieben and one person was trying to administer first aid. After paramedics arrived, a short time later, they declared Sieben was dead.

Officers, given a description of the alleged stabber, were able to locate Muhammad near-by.

Hsu interviewed two witnesses, George and Lindsy Brigham. They were parked on the south side of the gas station. Sieben, in a gray truck, was parked beside them.

“Mr. Brigham also observed a black male adult, later identified as Muhammad Ameer, standing outside the gray GMC pickup truck,” Hsu wrote. “As Mr. Ameer started to leave the vehicle, the decedent got out of the GMC and started to Mr. and Mrs. Brigham, ‘Get that mother fucker!’ Mr. and Mrs. Brigham believed that the decedent was requesting their assistance for an emergency.”

Sieben then chased Muhammad along the sidewalk behind the store while the Brighams got out of their vehicle and watched as the pair engaged in a fist fight, which spilled into the westbound lanes of Lomas Boulevard NE.

“While on Lomas Blvd NE, Mr. Ameer produced a six-to-seven inch knife,” Hsu wrote. “Mr. and Mrs. Bringham saw Mr. Ameer going through the decedent’s pants pockets. Mrs. Brigham observed Mr. Ameer remove a black wallet from the decedent’s right rear pocket. Mr. Ameer then fled the scene on foot eastbound on Lomas Blvd NE.”

The Brigham’s tried to administer first aid until paramedics arrived and Lindsy Bringham called 911 and provided a description of Muhammad and the direction he was headed. George Brigham positively identified him, after officers detained him.

He was initially charged, the day of the alleged incident, on an open count of murder and robbery with a deadly weapon.

Below is the criminal complaint for Muhammad’s arrest.

 

Muhammad Ameer PC -3-20-2017_Redacted

 

Indictment and case movements

On March 30, 2017, a grand jury indicted Muhammad on charges of:

  • First-degree murder, or in the alternative, felony murder
  • Armed robbery
  • Tampering with evidence for allegedly stealing the wallet
  • Shoplifting under $250 for razors blades and a knife allegedly stolen from Wal-Mart

Attempts at disqualifying the DA

On Sept. 7, 2017, Assistant District Attorney Les Romaine accused defense attorneys Robert Martin and Matthias Swonger of “engaging in gamesmanship to try and obtain suppression of witnesses.” On Nov. 7, 2017, after more motions, including ones to remove the Second Judicial District Attorney’s Office, the Attorney General’s Office entered its appearance in the case.

Romaine, in his motion for sanctions, alleged Martin and Swonger were trying to suppress witnesses because of issues related to pre-trial witness interviews and by putting off interviews of police officers until closer to trial, but before the deadline. He also alleged that the defense, both employed by the Law Office of the Public Defender, did not “seem motivated to move forward in the adjudication of this matter.”

He requested sanctions to “deter this sort of behavior.”

Swonger filed a response on Sept. 11, 2017 and wrote that they were splitting the pre-trial interviews and Martin was not available until November 2017.

“The State responded on August 7, 2017 and stated that the ‘interviews in this case cannot be put off any longer,’ despite the fact that the interview deadline in this matter is not
until January 22, 2018,” Swonger wrote about Romaine. “The State gave no further explanation to Defense of why interview dates in November, two months prior to the interview deadline, would be unacceptable to him.”

Swonger also alleged that Grace Fonesca, employed by the Second Judicial District Attorney’s Office and who was on the prosecution’s witness list, was trying to avoid being served with a subpeona and had been providing false names to investigators for the defense. (According to an Oct. 27, 2017 court filing by Romaine, Fonesca saw Sieben’s killing.)

On Sept. 18, 2017, the judge set a hearing for the motion for sanctions on Oct. 19, 2017.

On Oct. 18, 2017, Martin filed a motion to dismiss or disqualify the Second Judicial District Attorney’s Office. Martin wrote in the motion that Fonesca allegedly lied to investigators, claimed she was a different person when an investigator tried to serve her with a subpoena and allegedly claimed that Romaine told her she did not have to accept the subpoena.

Martin wrote that Romaine violated Muhammad’s Fifth and Fourteenth rights, as well as state constitutional rights, by “the obstruction and interference of the prosecutor in the service of a lawful subpoena upon the witness in this matter.”

“This was in part due to the inherent conflict of interest by the witness being employed at the 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s office and therefore, wanting to please her employer in this matter,” Martin wrote.

Martin wrote that Romaine caused a denial of due process because of bias “formed” by Fonesca being an employee of his office.

“The interplay between the employee witness and the prosecutor has given rise to the appearance of impropriety and a need for a special prosecutor,” Martin wrote.

According to an affidavit by Investigator Milton Rodriguez, and attached to Martin’s motion, Rodriguez went to to Fonesca’s house on Sept. 6, 2017 and a woman was sitting outside on the phone. She claimed her name was “Lisa” and she was the dog sitter. Rodriguez pulled up Fonesca’s driver’s license photo and found he had been duped, he wrote.

On Sept. 11, 2017, Rodriguez found Fonesca’s 17-year-old son outside the house and explained why he was there.

“After explaining to Richard (Fonesca) Jr. the subpoenas I had in hand, Richard Jr. told me he witnessed the same incident in question. Richard Jr. told me, his mother told him not to tell the police what he had seen because she did not want him to get involved,” Rodriguez wrote.

On Oct. 19, 2017, following a hearing, District Court Judge Christina Argyres denied Romaine’s motion for sanctions in a form order.

On Oct. 27, 2017, Romaine filed a response and alleged that he never told Fonesca to refuse service of the subpoena.

On Nov. 7, 2017, prosecutor Mark Probasco, with the Attorney General’s Office, entered his appearance in the case, taking the case away from Romaine and the Second Judicial District Attorney’s Office.

Motion to suppress

Portrait of District Judge Jacqueline Flores
Judge Jacqueline Flores

On April 2, 2018, Martin filed a motion to suppress statements Muhammad made to Det. Andrew Hsu on March 24, 2017, after he had been arraigned, asked for an attorney and was being represented by the Law Office of the Public Defender.

Martin wrote that Muhammad was “actively hallucinating” during the interrogation by Hsu and he was represented when Hsu interrogated him on March 24, 2017.

On April 12, 2018, Probasco filed an opposition to the motion to suppress statements and he wrote that Muhammad initiated conversation with Hsu on March 27, 2017. It is not clear which date is correct.

Probasco wrote: “After documenting an injury on the Defendant’s hand, the Defendant — without  any question being posed– volunteers ‘Like, uh, never mind. I was going to say, like, I know I did it but that· is that what y’all want to know? Like I did it but I feel like I wasn’t in my right mind at the time though. Like, I feel like everybody in Albuquerque, New Mexico was trying to kill me and shit.'”

“Law enforcement,” although it is not clear if that was Hsu or someone else, stopped Muhammad from speaking and told him he needed to read him his rights, which he did.

District Court Judge Jacqueline Flores denied the motion to suppress for the reasons Probasco outlined.

Flores wrote:

“The waiver in this case comports with the requirements of the Constitution because Defendant initiated his interrogation: he was given repeated and individualized advice of
rights, he repeatedly attempted to discuss his criminal conduct, his demeanor showed relief when he initiated his statement, and his affirmative waiver of rights indicated that
he still wanted to provide a statement to the police in this case despite having on previous occasion asserted his right to counsel.”

Guilty verdict and sentence

Trial began on July 23, 2018 and the jury found Muhammad guilty on July 27, 2018, of felony (first-degree) murder, armed robbery and shoplifting $250 or less.

Flores vacated the armed robbery charge because it was the predicate felony for felony murder. He was acquitted of tampering with evidence.

On Sept. 25, 2018, Flores sentenced him to life in prison, which is a term of 30 years, according to a remand order.

Supreme Court appeal

In an initial statement of issues filed Nov. 7, 2018, Martin raised four issues on appeal:

  • The denial of the suppression of Muhammad’s statements to Andrew Hsu
  • The judge’s denial of a self defense instruction to the jury
  • If the judge erred by allowing Det. Tasia Sullivan to be designated as the case agent, and attend the trial, despite not being the lead agent
  • If there was sufficient evidence to convict Muhammad

In the June 10, 2019 brief in chief, Assistant Appellate Defender Steven Forsberg, with the Law Office of the Public Defender, only challenged two issues: the judge not suppressing Muhammad’s statement to the police and the lack of a self-defense instruction.

However, both of those issues are related because the judge, Flores, used Muhammad’s statements as the basis for not giving a self-defense instruction, Forsberg wrote.

The 42-page brief outlines much of the testimony at trial.

In challenging the unsuppressed statement, Forsberg wrote that the Flores used the wrong legal standard to determine if it needed to be suppressed.

A Miranda rights waiver has to be both voluntary and knowing and intelligent, but Flores stated she believed police coercion was required to suppress the statement. However, that is only required to find if a statement was given voluntarily; a statement can still fail to meet the knowing and intelligent threshold in the absence of coercion, Forsberg wrote.

He wrote that Muhammad was “in the grips of severe mental illness” when he made the waiver.

The statement was also the only evidence Muhammad was the initial aggressor. When the defense argued for a self-defense instruction, the judge said she could not discount his statement to police. Forsberg wrote:

None of the eyewitnesses saw what caused Muhammad to flee from Mr. Sieben’s truck while Mr. Sieben chased him, but Ameer in his statement said he had held a knife to Mr. Sieben. None of the witnesses could provide a motive for those events, until Mr. Muhammad said during his statement, according to the detective, “that he wanted to get meth; to get high; to kill himself, and he made statements that he killed him because he did not want to continue to ask people for money.” [8 Tr. 23:24-25:15] Due to his mental state, Ameer’ s statements were not knowing (let alone reliable).

When the defense was arguing for a self-defense instruction, the trial court judge emphasized the importance of the statement: “I think the problem for me is you really want me to discount the Defendant’s statement, and I can’t” [8 Tr. 56:16-56:18] Ameer’s unknowing statement kneecapped any defense he might have had.

Forsberg wrote that the Supreme Court should either reverse his conviction and remand for a re-trial, with the statement suppressed, or remand the case to the District Court for a new hearing on the suppression issue.

Should the trial court, on remand, find the statement unknowing, then a new trial would be required. If, on the other hand, the trial court held that the statement was knowing and intelligent, then Mr. Muhammad could appeal that decision to this Court.

In the answer brief for the prosecution, filed June 20, 2019, Assistant Attorney General Maris Veidemanis wrote that, although Muhammad was experiencing delusions during the police interrogation, he was “coherent and articulate” and that the defense presented no information that Muhammad did not understand the Miranda warning.

If there had been an error, it wouldn’t have mattered because there was ample evidence to convict him of felony murder, predicated on armed robbery, Veidemanis wrote.

As to the self-defense instruction, Veidemanis wrote that really, the Flores’ decision was based on the lack of evidence that Muhammad had been attacked and pointed to State v Abeyta, which states that self defense must be reasonable in relation to the threat posed and that excessive force in self defense “renders the entire action unlawful.”

On July 10, 2019, Forsberg filed a reply brief and focused on Veidemanis’ emphasis on the voluntariness of Muhammad’s statement. He wrote that the trial court should be ordered to consider evidence of Muhammad’s mental state in determining if he knowingly and intelligently waived his rights.

He wrote that Veidemanis’ claims that the case could have stood without his statement was contradicted by the trial prosecutor, who fought the suppression motion and highlighted the statement during his closing arguments.

The case is scheduled for oral arguments at 10:15 a.m., July 7, 2020.

Conviction affirmed

On Oct. 19, 2020, the New Mexico Supreme Court unanimously upheld Muhammad’s conviction for felony murder, rejecting the two arguments made by his defense attorney: Flores not suppressing Muhammad’s statement to the police and the lack of a self-defense instruction.

Supreme Court Justice Barbara Vigil, in her opinion for the court, wrote that no self-defense instruction was appropriate because there was no evidence that the Sieben, 30, ever had a weapon, even if he struck first.

Muhammad’s Miranda rights were not violated because, based on the recording of his interview, because his “mental illness did not affect his understanding of his rights but rather his motivation for not exercising those rights,” Vigil wrote.

See the case documents on Google Drive or Document Cloud

Stories on this case

Supreme Court upholds Ameer Muhammad’s conviction for 2017 ABQ stabbing death

Oral arguments scheduled for Muhammad Ameer murder appeal

Darrius Valles: Jerry Wayne Jennings — 01-15-2016

  • Suspect: Darrius Valles
  • Victim: Jerry Wayne Jennings
  • Charges: First-degree murder, aggravated battery with a deadly weapon: a firearm, two counts of tampering with evidence and escape from the custody of a release program
  • Status: Guilty plea to second-degree murder, tampering with evidence and escape from a community custody program
  • Sentence: 7 years followed by 5 years supervised probation
  • Date of incident: Jan. 15, 2016
  • Agency: Albuquerque Police Department
  • Location: 1309 Dickerson Dr SE, Albuquerque
  • Magistrate case number: T-4-FR-2016-001084
  • District case number: D-202-CR-2016-00789

 

Summary

On Jan. 15, 2016, Darrius Valles, allegedly shot Jerry Wayne Jennings in the head with a pistol while they were fighting. They got into the fight because Valles caused someone to break Jenning’s windows.

Valles allegedly claimed to his girlfriend, after the fight, that he shot Jennings in self defense.

A female witness who lived across the way alleged that she saw Jennings shot in the head while he was talking on a cell phone, and not while he was fighting with Valles.

He was arrested on the charges on Feb. 29, 2016.

As the case proceeded, DeAmber Yonker failed to appear for a pre-trial interview and her lawyer, representing Valles in another case, requested that she not be ordered to testify because she could incriminate herself. That attorney, Lisa Torraco, was later removed as her attorney.

Yonker failed to appear for a series of hearings and on May 5, 2017, prosecutors agreed to a plea deal with Valles’ attorney, Tom Clark, after Yonker could not be located. She was arrested on a warrant two days later.

According to the plea deal, accepted on June 14, 2017, Valles received a sentence of seven years followed by supervised probation for five years.

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The incident

Around 3:42 p.m., Jan. 15, 2016, Darrius Valles, 21 at the time, and Jerry Wayne Jennings, 43, got into a fight over Jenning’s broken apartment windows.

Valles had taken refuge a few days prior in Jenning’s apartment because someone was trying to get to him. The person who was after him threw rocks through Jenning’s windows, breaking all of them, Albuquerque Police Detective C. J. Brown wrote in a statement of probable cause for Valles arrest shortly after the shooting.

Darrius Valles

During the fight, Valles allegedly shot Jennings in the head with a pistol, according to what he told his girlfriend, DeAmber Yonker, of Albuquerque, Brown wrote.

He wrote he was called out to Valles’ apartment in the 1300 block of Dickerson Drive SE about two hours after the shooting was reported.

Yonker told Brown, in an interview in the Department’s mobile crime scene van, that nine days prior, her boyfriend, Valles, and his friend, Lamar Watts, got into an argument.

“During this argument, Darrius ran over to Jerry’s apartment #A for refuge,” Brown wrote. “Lamar threw several rocks into several of Jerry’s apartment windows. DeAmber stated since then, none of Jerry’s windows were fixed until today when her mother had a repairman fix only one of the damaged windows.”

Because Yonker’s mother only had the one window fixed, Jennings went over to the apartment Yonkers and Valles shared the day of the shooting. He wanted to speak to Valles about getting the other windows fixed.

Valles walked outside of the apartment and allegedly heard Jennings tell Valles that he was going to fix the windows, then heard fighting outside the closed door, and someone bump up against it.

“She stated her door opened and saw Darrius trip as he was walking back into their apartment,” Brown wrote. “She stated although Darrius was much larger than Jerry that Jerry got on top of him and started punching him.”

Yonker told them she was going to call 911, and did so, but was told to go into one of the back rooms while the two men fought.

Brown wrote that, according to driver’s license information, both men were six feet tall but Jennings only weighed 175 pounds while Valles weighed 280 pounds.

“She stated Darrius and Jerry ended up outside again and while she was on the phone, she heard a ‘pop’ sound,” Brown wrote. “She then dropped her phone and walked into the hallway of their apartment to see what was going on.”

Valles walked in and met her in the apartment’s hallway.

“She stated he told her he had to shoot Jerry ‘out of self-defense,'” Brown wrote. “She stated he told her Jerry was punching him and he had to shoot him. She stated he then handed her a small pistol (unknown type or caliber) telling her to take it because she was 21 and she wouldn’t get in trouble.”

Yonker told him no and handed the pistol back. Valles then allegedly opened the closet door in the hallway, put on a jacket and left the apartment.

The other view

Another detective told Brown he talked to a juvenile who lived in an adjacent apartment complex.

“She stated while in her bedroom, she heard what sounded like a gunshot,” Brown wrote. “She looked through the back window and observed a male talking on a cellphone fall back onto the floor just after hearing the ‘pop’ sound. The female then walked down to 1309 Dickerson Dr SE and noticed the male she saw fall to the ground shaking on the ground.”

She told the detective the man was bleeding from the head.

Nowhere to be found

Detectives learned that Valles was on probation for another case and had an ankle bracelet that should have been able to track his movements.

During a briefing, Brown learned that Valles allegedly cut the bracelet off after the shooting.

“The bracelet was located at Arno St SE and Bell Ave SE at approximately 4:02 pm by Probation and Parole,” Brown wrote.

The arrest warrant was then issued the following day, Jan. 16, 2016.

He was arrested on the warrant on Feb. 29, 2016.

PC - Darrius Valles - 1-16-2016

 

Grand jury indictment

On March 15, 2016, a grand jury indicted Valles on charges of:

  • First-degree murder
  • Aggravated battery with a deadly weapon: a firearm
  • Two counts of tampering with evidence
  • Escape from the custody of a release program

 

Witness problems

Deamber Yonker’s former attorney Lisa Torraco saw two problems with Yonker’s testimony: She was being prosecuted for allegedly lying to investigators about her boyfriend, Valles’, whereabouts and her testimony, either in court or in a pre-trial interview, could incriminate herself in Jennings’ death. That case has since been dismissed.

The prosecution tried to conduct a pre-trial witness interview with Yonker on May 17, 2016 and served her with a subpeona.

Albuquerque by Pom’/Flickr. CC BY-SA

She didn’t show.

Her lawyer at the time, Lisa Torraco, filed a motion for a protective order on May 16, 2016 that would protect Yonker from testifying under the theory that she could incriminate herself. The judge sealed that motion.

According to the judge’s order granting the state’s motion to appoint new counsel for Yonker, Yonker had “information not known to the state and to the police that will tend to incriminate [her] and is EXCULPATORY to [Defendant].”

On May 17, 2016, Second Judicial District prosecutor Les Romaine filed a motion for a “material witness warrant,” which was eventually quashed by the judge.

In his motion, Romaine asked the judge to issue a warrant for Yonker so she could be held until they could conduct a pre-trial interview.

Torraco had previously represented Yonker and Valles in another case and in this case, prosecutors argued, she had a conflict of interest because what would be good for Valles might not be good for Yonker.

In a motion, Romaine asked that Torraco be removed as Yonker’s attorney and in it, he summarized a series of past cases involving Valles and Yonker. See the motion here.

In addition, he wrote that Torraco indicated that Yonker might expose herself to federal prosecution if she were to testify.

“Torraco is now representing a witness this case whose interests are adverse to Defendant,” District Judge Brett Loveless wrote in the order for new counsel. “Torraco has represented that Yonker may have evidence that is exculpatory for Defendant. However. Torraco sought an order excluding Yonker from testifying in order to protect Yonker from incriminating herself. Thus, the interests of Yonker and Defendant are materially adverse.”

Loveless wrote that it was unusual that prosecutors wanted a witness’s lawyer to be removed from the case.

“However, under the unique circumstances of this case, the Court has no trouble concluding that Torraco’s simultaneous representation of Yonker in this case and Defendant in other criminal matters is fraught with a conflict of interest, as well as a serious potential conflict of interest,” Loveless wrote.

Immunity request

On March 22, 2017, Romaine filed a motion asking that Loveless issue an order forcing Yonker to testify and granting her immunity from prosecution.

“The State is prepared to grant use immunity to DeAmber Yonker for her testimony in regards to the events of January 16, 2016, so long as DeAmber Yonker does not state she was the shooter,” Romaine wrote.

On March 15, 2017, Valles attorney, Tom Clark, filed a motion to exclude the testimony of Yonker and fellow witness Julia Quaglia-Jaramillo because they had not been made available for interviews and the deadline to interview witnesses was Feb. 3, 2017.

“While suppression is a harsh remedy, it is appropriate in this case,” Clark wrote.

Romaine wrote in a response dated March 17 that interviewing Yonker would be in violation of the judge’s order and that Clark could have attempted to subpoena them himself.

In addition, Quaglia-Jaramillo was not properly served with a subpoena, but was available.

On May 31, 2017, Clark filed a motion to dismiss the homicide charge against Valles and another motion to exclude Yonker’s testimony.

Romaine filed a short response to the motion to dismiss the homicide charge and a 13-page response to the motion to exclude Yonker’s testimony, both on June 12, 2017. In that response, he alleged Valles made thousands of calls to Yonker in an attempt to get her to not testify.

 

Plea deal

Portrait of District Judge Brett Loveless
District Judge Brett Loveless

According to a story in the Albuquerque Journal, prosecutors agreed to a plea with Valles on May 5, 2017, after they were unable to locate Yonker. That plea deal set his sentence at seven years in prison.

Yonker was booked on a material witness warrant two days later on May 7, 2017, according to the Journal.

Valles did not sign the plea agreement until June 13, 2017 and Romaine did not sign it until June 14, the day it was accepted by District Court Judge Brett Loveless during a plea hearing.

According to the plea agreement, Valles pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, tampering with evidence and escape from a community custody program. In addition to seven years in prison, he also received five years of probation following his release.

It is not clear why Clark filed the two motions on May 31, 2017, to dismiss the homicide charge and exclude Yonker’s testimony, or why Romaine filed a response, when they already agreed to a plea on May 5, 2017.

Second Judicial District Attorney’s Office spokesman Michael Patrick told the Journal that prosecutors, presumably Romaine, would have pushed for a sentence of at least nine years but the deal had already been made in good faith.

 

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