The prosecution and defense made their closing arguments today, and the jury began its deliberations. Jurors told District Judge Michael Vigil that they'd convene until 5:30 pm tonight, then reconvene Friday morning, April 30.
Jury instructions handed down today made it clear that the defense hoped for a conviction of voluntary manslaughter—rather than first- or second-degree murder—based on Reno Leyba's diminished mental capacity. (The consequences are explained in today's SFR.)
Court observers and defense attorney Gary Mitchell (pictured) told SFR that it would be a New Mexico first if the jury accepted a "diminished capacity" defense, which has been used successfully in other states.
Late yesterday, in their closing arguments, prosecutors delivered a surprise witness—an ex-girlfriend of Reno's who said she'd bore his child, a girl now 2 years old. Mitchell told SFR that her testimony was irrelevant to the case, and noted that there had been no paternity test, but Santa Fe Police Detective Tony Trujillo told SFR that the child's paternity was not in question.
The ex-girlfriend told jurors that she had been threatened by Reno, but did not elaborate. Trujillo told SFR that Reno had asked a relative to have her pushed down a staircase during her pregnancy, hopefully causing a miscarriage—an allegation that jurors will not be able to hear or consider, along with many other details of past abuse in both the victims' and defendants' families.
In closing arguments today, prosecutors repeated an assertion that came up during police testimony: That Sarah and Bennie Lovato, Sr, had been pepper sprayed in the face after they were shot, not before. That supposition was based on the fact that each victim had residue on only one side of their face, and that no residue was found on nearby surfaces. Mitchell ridiculed that particular assertion in his own closing arguments. "Why would he have dropped the can?" Mitchell said. (The pepper spray can, but not the gun, was found in the apartment.)
He also cast doubt on the testimony of a key prosecution witness, Sarah's sister Julie Lovato. Julie testified that she'd seen Reno's shadow in the doorway as she fled the apartment just before the first shots were fired. Using a photograph of the apartment building, Mitchell argued that a wall would've blocked her view, casting doubt on other elements of her testimony.
Such details may seem minor, given the totality of evidence against Leyba. But since the burden of proof rests with the prosecution, Mitchell can succeed if his arguments resonate at all with a single juror. Because the jury's verdict must be unanimous, one juror who holds a reasonable doubt in regards to Leyba's state of mind at the time of the killings could cause the entire group to get hung on any of the distinctions between first-degree murder, second-degree murder, and voluntary manslaughter.