To the Santa Fe jury that will decide the fate of her killer, the life of Sarah Lovato is less vivid than the circumstances of her death.
They have heard that she was 15, or maybe 14, and weighed just 80 pounds when a mutual friend introduced her to Marino K Leyba Jr., a Santa Fe High School dropout working part-time for his father’s security company.
They have heard that Lovato was 17 years old and eight months pregnant when she died on May 22, 2009. They have seen photos of the orange film of pepper spray covering her face, and three bullet holes in her body.
The jury knows even less about the life of her father, Bennie Ray Lovato Sr., who was shot dead in the next room; between his knees lay a new television remote control, which he’d been trying to program.
As SFR went to press, it seemed likely that the 23-year-old Leyba, known as Reno, will be going away. The questions are for how long and to what type of facility.
Prosecutors charged him with two counts of first-degree murder, one count of aggravated burglary and one count of tampering with evidence. They are not seeking the death penalty.
The jury had yet to receive its instructions as SFR went to press. A first-degree murder conviction would carry a life in prison sentence. If jurors find Reno not guilty of first-degree murder, they’ll be asked to decide if his actions meet the definition of a lesser crime, such as voluntary manslaughter, a third-degree felony punishable by up to six years in prison for each count.
Prosecutors have built a case that the victims cowered as Leyba blinded then shot them, before fleeing in his work SUV, donning clean clothes, hiding his gun and then mysteriously turning himself in to police in Los Alamos.
Reno is lucky to have on his side one of the state’s most renowned criminal defense attorneys, ACLU-New Mexico President Gary Mitchell.
Mitchell argues that Reno is a “borderline retarded” and emotionally disturbed young man who witnessed “close to 60 or 70” incidents of domestic violence in his family home, and was born without the brainpower to process complex situations. On April 26, Reno himself testified that he fired his gun in what he believed to be self-defense; under cross-examination, he also called Sarah’s diary entries alleging abuse a “fabrication.” In his opening remarks, Mitchell told jurors that horrific crimes will continue to occur as long as New Mexico neglects mental health issues.
The government, of course, is not on trial. If it were, more might be made of an incident that occurred on May 2, 2008, when Santa Fe police responded to the Leyba home for a domestic violence call with shots fired. Marino Leyba Sr.—who had been arrested only months prior for beating and threatening to kill his wife—claimed his gun went off as he knocked it from the hand of his suicidal wife. (Reno testified about the incident, saying he called police because he was afraid of his mother, who was waving a gun. A responding officer thought Reno acted “calmly” during the stressful incident, prosecutors said, undermining the defense case.)
That June, police returned the silver 9 mm pistol to Leyba, who passed it on to his son, also a licensed security guard.
The role of local institutions in
the Leyba family’s disintegration won’t have a bearing on this trial. But the story won’t end with Reno’s sentencing.
Santa Fe attorney Robert Rothstein tells SFR he will represent the Lovato family in a lawsuit against the insurer of Leyba’s security company, and perhaps the New Mexico Regulation and Licensing Department. As SFR reported last year, New Mexico State Police notified the RLD about the elder Leyba’s domestic violence convictions, a fact that should have threatened his operating license.
Had Leyba lost his company, he would have lost his legal excuse for carrying a firearm despite his domestic violence record.