It’s been more than three years since Marino “Reno” Leyba shot and killed his pregnant teenage girlfriend, Sarah Lovato—but this week, the New Mexico Supreme Court sent the case back to the district court for a new trial.
Both sides agree that, on May 22, 2009, Leyba shot and killed Lovato and her father, Bennie Ray Lovato. But they disagree on whether Leyba planned it—whether his crime was coldly premeditated or committed in the heat of the moment.
In order to prove that the murder was premeditated, prosecutors used entries from Sarah Lovato’s diary, which chronicled a prior incident of physical abuse by Leyba and indicated that she was “scared.”
But on Oct. 22, the high court ruled that Lovato’s diary constitutes improper hearsay evidence, and that allowing it resulted in “harmful error” to Leyba, who received two life sentences after a jury convicted him of first-degree murder.
Although there are exceptions to the hearsay rule, the court found that Lovato’s diary did not satisfy them. Furthermore, the prosecutors’ case hinged on the diary, meaning that improper evidence played a key role in Lovato’s conviction.
Stephen Aarons, Leyba’s attorney on appeal, told SFR he was “elated and surprised” at the case’s outcome. He says the new trial will likely begin sometime in the next year.
The ruling itself has more to do with the state’s rules of evidence—what’s allowed in a courtroom and what’s not—than with domestic violence. But the Leyba case is nonetheless considered a key example of New Mexico’s continuing struggle with domestic violence [cover story, July 8, 2009: “Everyone Knew”].
Kristin Carmichael, the domestic violence specialist at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center and author of of X that Ex: Making a Clean Break When It’s Over, has concerns about the legal system’s ability to fully address domestic violence.
“I don’t think our legal system—or our criminal justice system, law enforcement—is set up to deal with the entirety of abuse,” Carmichael says, noting that abusers often come up with ways to evade responsibility.
“It’s really common for me to see offenders of domestic violence hide behind this idea that what they do is a crime of passion,” Carmichael says. “Really, from what I’ve seen, offenders of domestic violence don’t lose control; they do whatever they can to get it—even if that ultimately means killing the person they’re with.”
Carmichael also points out that there’s often a lack of evidence in domestic violence cases: “This is not a crime, by and large, that is done in front of other people,” she says. She worries that victims of domestic violence will conclude that “the court is not a place where they can find justice.”
October, incidentally, is Domestic Violence Awareness Month—and Carmichael says it’s a problem that, particularly in New Mexico, needs a lot more attention.
“New Mexico, statistically, has a huge issue on its hands—not something that we should feel at all comfortable ignoring or thinking will go away on its own,” Carmichael says. “And I don’t believe we’re getting in front of the issue here in New Mexico; we’re chasing it.”
Click here to read an extended interview with Carmichael on problems and solutions related to domestic violence.