Leyba, a former security guard, was found guilty of the first-degree murder of his girlfriend, Sarah Lovato—who was pregnant at the time—and murder of her father, Bennie Ray Lovato, Sr. At his sentencing in July 2010, the Lovato family asked for the maximum sentence.
The Supreme Court released a slip opinion this morning ruling that prosecutors' reliance on entries from Sarah Lovato's diary indicating that Leyba had abused her in the past was improper, and that the diary entries constitute hearsay evidence. The court reversed Leyba's two murder convictions as well as an aggravated burglary conviction, but not a conviction for tampering with evidence since it was not appealed.
Stephen Aarons, the attorney handling Leyba's appeal, tells SFR that the defense is "elated and surprised"—surprised, in part, because the high court did not hold oral arguments on the case.
Aarons says that the case hinged on whether Leyba's murder of the Lovatos was premeditated or a crime of passion—not whether he actually killed them.
"So it’s not like this would be a case where, on retrial, we would expect or ask even for an acquittal, but we’re asking for a lesser offense than first-degree premeditated [murder]," Aarons explains. Leyba has already spent more than two years in prison; Aarons says that "the time that he has spent is time that he would have to spend even with a favorable verdict...In this case, we’re seeking a step down from first-degree to a lesser degree of homicide—for example, manslaughter, where it’s done under the heat of passion."
From the Supreme Court ruling:
In this first-degree murder case, the State improperly admitted into evidence a diary of the decedent which was inadmissable hearsay. Because the diary was important to the State's case, and the State repeatedly relied upon its contents throughout the trial, we conclude that the error was not harmless and the convictions must be reversed. Accordingly, we remand to the district court for a new trial.
Specifically, the opinion examines the three possible exceptions to the hearsay rule. (Hearsay, in general, refers to statements made outside of court that are offered in court as evidence. While many types of hearsay are not allowed, some are permissible.)
Updated 3:00 pm: Sarah Lovato's diary included three entries—one from March 17, 2009, reporting that Leyba had physically abused her; one from March 21, 2009, the day before her death; and a third from April 8, 2009 that was provided to the jury but was not read aloud in court.
- then-existing mental state: New Mexico law allows hearsay when it is used to show someone's "then-existing" state of mind. "Sarah's March 17, 2009, diary entry includes some statements of her then-existing state of mind, such as 'Im scared' and 'Im so mad an sad an confused,'" the court explains. Other parts of the diary entries, such as "my boyfriend hit me cuz we were argueing so he gave me a fat lip and a black eye" are not acceptable, since they describe events rather than a state of mind, the court explains.
- present-sense impression: Hearsay evidence is also admissible in the case of a statement describing an event "while or immediately after" it occurred. In Sarah Lovato's case, recording the incident of abuse "a few hours later," the court writes, is long enough for her to rethink what happened—hence rendering the evidence unacceptable.
- residual exception: State law also allows exceptions to hearsay in some other cases, but the court writes that prosecutors did not make sufficient arguments for this exception.
- statements by a party opponent: Statements made by one party in a lawsuit to his/her opponent are also not considered hearsay—but Sarah Lovato, who died in 2009, is not a party to the lawsuit, since the state is bringing it against Leyba.
...the evidence of [Leyba's] physical violence toward [Sarah Lovato] derived almost exclusively from the diary. [Leyba] denied it ever happened...Julie [Lovato, Sarah's sister] testified that she saw Sarah with the same injuries described in the diary, but it was the diary itself, and only the diary, that linked those injuries to [Leyba]. ...Unlike other murder cases with a shooting, the jury here could not necessarily infer willful and deliberate intent based solely on the presence of a gun...[Leyba], a security guard, regularly carried a gun while at work...But the defense didn't question just the diaries; they also argued that the use of Leyba's mug shot (pictured here) had a "prejudicial" effect on the jury. "[W]e do not understand, and the State does not explain, how [Leyba's] booking photograph demonstrates character, other than unfairly to make him look like a criminal," the opinion reads.
Together, the diary entries and the mug shot—both improperly admitted—had the effect of convincing the jury that Leyba planned to kill Sarah Lovato. Since the conviction and sentencing revolve around whether the murder was premeditated, the admission of that evidence may have had an unfairly harmful effect on Leyba, the court reasons. Here's its conclusion:
For the reasons stated above, we hold that the admission of the diary was harmful error and reverse Defendant's convictions for first-degree willful and deliberate murder, felony-murder, and aggravated burglary. We remand for a new trial. Defendant did not appeal his conviction for tampering with evidence.Aarons says he expects the new trial to begin sometime this year.
One small postscript: The court had some choice words for both sides in this case. To wit:
Despite our double-jeopardy precedent, the trial court failed to vacate Defendant's aggravated burglary conviction, the predicate felony for his felony-murder conviction....This is an issue not raised by Defendant but readily conceded by the State in its answer brief. We appreciate such candor from the State.[footnote 3]
Defendant's briefing in this case is of very poor quality. Defendant's brief-in-chief really only raises issues, and fails to make cogent arguments as to why they constitute error, leaving it to this Court to determine why. Defendant even failed to conduct a harmless error analysis. We point this out as an example of what not to do in the future.
Past SFR coverage of the Leyba case:
Everyone Knew (cover story, July 8, 2009)
This is OK: Despite violent rap, state let guard keep license (news, Sept. 16, 2009)
Leyba Murder Trial Begins (news, April 21, 2010)
Leyba Murder Trial: Day 2 (blog, April 22, 2010)
Leyba Murder Trial: Day 3, with video (blog, April 26, 2010)
Leyba Murder Trial: Day 6 (blog, April 30, 2010)
Two Life Terms for Leyba (blog, July 6, 2010)
Insult to Injury: Insurance co. sues relatives on both sides of double murder (news, Sept. 8, 2010)