Trial of Attrition

Defense attorney planning to appeal murder conviction as Montoya awaits sentencing

In the midst of wildfires spreading throughout New Mexico, a heated debate burned during a two-week trial in Santa Fe’s First Judicial District Courthouse, as Estevan Montoya argued his innocence in the shooting death of local basketball star Fedonta “JB” White.

A Santa Fe County jury ruled against Montoya, finding him guilty of first-degree murder. Now, the teenager who was 16 when charged as an adult, awaits sentencing while his attorneys prepare to appeal. At a time when criminal justice reform advocates are calling for relaxed punishments for those convicted of crimes committed as juveniles, Montoya is facing up to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 30 years.

Because Montoya was found guilty as a serious youthful offender, Judge T. Glenn Ellington has full discretion at sentencing—anywhere from zero years to the maximum sentence. The District Attorney’s Office is expected to ask for the maximum punishment, but Chief Deputy DA Jennifer Padgett Macias says the state is still reviewing the case.

Defense attorney Dan Marlowe anticipates the judge will throw the book at his client.

“I think the judge is going to max him out if he can,” Marlowe tells SFR. “This judge is totally, totally, politically motivated. At least it appears that way.”

The basics of the case were irrefutable: Somewhere between 50 and 150 teens showed up for a party in Chupadero in August 2020, multiple fights broke out and one confrontation ended when Montoya fired a .380-caliber pistol, killing 18-year-old White. Under dispute were the circumstances that led to the shooting.

The defense theorized that Montoya was being attacked and shot in self defense. That claim suffered a major setback, though, when Ellington declined to instruct the jury to consider the self-defense argument.

After hearing evidence from the state, Ellington said there was “no reasonable basis for the type of fear Mr. Montoya claims to have had that necessitated him responding to one or two missed blows with deadly force and killing Mr. White.”

The state’s case focused heavily on witness testimony to show Montoya instigated the altercation, bringing a gun to a fist fight. Eighteen of the 30 witnesses prosecutors called to the stand were at the party that night.

It made for a lengthy trial for the family, friends, associates and legal teams. The hard, wooden benches in the gallery left attendees sore and achy, as an emotional cloud hung over the proceedings. The tense line of questioning and accounts about White’s final moments left some witnesses in tears and family members excusing themselves from the courtroom.

Those who were at the party, many of whom were minors at the time, say it was a typical gathering for a bunch of students and recent high school graduates. The home in Chupadero was under renovation at the time and some rooms, like the master bedroom, were blocked off to keep partygoers out. A beer pong table was set up and music blasted in the house. It was BYOB as kids passed around booze and weed. More than a few became very drunk.

The party wound down in the early morning hours, but not without a few drunken arguments occurring both inside and outside the house. However, none of the witnesses expected one of those confrontations to spiral out of control and end with one person dead and another in custody.

“It was one of the most unexpected things ever,” witness Isaac Trujillo testified.

White and Montoya were seen squaring up with one another outside the home. Witnesses say they saw the 6-foot-4-inch White—who had opted to skip his senior year at Santa Fe High and was soon planning to join the University of New Mexico Lobos—swing and miss a couple of times, before the younger boy then pulled out his gun and fired one shot. From there, as evidenced by the multiple 911 calls and witness statements, the scene became even more hectic. Some of the partygoers, unsure of what just happened after the shot rang out, made a run for it.

“I didn’t know if we were going to make it out alive,” said Anna Hayes.

A group of teens scooped up White and met EMTs about halfway to Santa Fe. He was taken to Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, where hospital staff attempted life-saving measures, but were unsuccessful.

As Montoya fled the scene, another shot rang out. One witness chasing after him remembers the sound of a bullet whizzing by his head, while another says she saw the dirt kick up where the projectile landed in front of her. Video evidence also shows what appears to be a laser sight pointing back toward the house shortly after the first shot went off, indicating Montoya was aiming the gun into the crowd of teens.

Montoya, the primary suspect, was arrested early in the morning on Aug. 1, 2020, telling investigators at first, “I didn’t shoot nobody.” Though a gun was never recovered, nor Montoya’s clothes he was wearing that night, none of that mattered. Witnesses placed him at the scene, holding a gun.

The defendant eventually claimed he was firing in self defense, telling jurors he was afraid for his life and shot behind him while attempting to evade White’s punches.

“The only option I had was the gun,” he testified.

Defense attorneys argue that because of the path of the bullet that killed White, he must have been bent over, as if he was running or throwing a punch. An expert witness showed the jury White’s likely body position when he was shot.

The teen’s initial denial, the evidence he pointed the firearm back toward the house, the missing firearm and Montoya’s history of buying and selling guns was all too damning, though.

It was enough for the jury to convict him on the murder count, plus the additional charges of tampering with evidence, unlawful carrying of a handgun by a person under age 19 and negligent use of a deadly weapon. They deliberated for roughly four hours.

“If you want to talk about outrageously reckless conduct, indicating a depraved mind and lack of concern for other people’s lives, it’s right here, folks,” Chief Deputy District Attorney Blake Nichols said during closing arguments. “Any one of these young people could have been killed. It would have not made it any less tragic and it wouldn’t have made him any less guilty.”

Meanwhile, incidents in and outside the courtroom forced Ellington to step in. On more than one occasion, he ordered attendees to leave the courthouse or change clothes for wearing colors similar to those worn by the Southside Goons—Montoya’s group of friends, which authorities say is a gang. In another instance, Ellington told a young man to take off a Philadelphia 76ers jersey—identical to the one White was wearing when he was killed.

Furthermore, Ellington ordered jail officials to revoke Montoya’s phone privileges during the trial due to concerns of possible witness intimidation. Padgett Macias tells SFR after the trial: “There were serious safety concerns brought to the attention of the court.”

A case involving young kids at an unsupervised party, a local basketball star on his way to play at the collegiate level turned victim and a defendant who watched his friend get murdered just weeks prior, the trial captured the attention of the city and of Santa Fe officials. Only attorneys saw it play out differently.

“There’s JB—tall, athletic, handsome kid; pretty girl on his arm all night long; just graduated early getting ready to go to college to play basketball. He’s successful, he’s friends with everybody at the party, he’s everything the defendant is not…JB’s his target,” Nichols told the jury.

White had a height and length advantage, Marlowe argued. Montoya, meanwhile, was still suffering from the shooting death of his friend Ivan Perez—just a kid afraid that “he might be next.”

“Estevan didn’t intentionally kill anybody; he reacted,” Marlowe said. “He was being chased by a pretty big guy.”

Now, Montoya’s next two challenges will come as he prepares to receive his sentence and then vie for a new trial.

There are around 75 people in New Mexico serving sentences longer than 15 years for crimes committed when they were under 18. Denali Wilson, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, says these kinds of sentences disproportionately impact communities of color. Throughout the state, 88% of those serving lengthy adult sentences for crimes committed as children are youths of color.

Montoya was charged as an adult by virtue of a state law written in 1993, based on, Wilson says, the “super-predator” theory that predicted the rise of a generation of remorseless, violent young people. She says although the theory has since been debunked, it was used to justify a change in law that remains intact.

“Most children—even those involved in serious violence like in this case—will outgrow these tendencies, if given the chance to mature and develop,” Wilson tells SFR. “We simply cannot continue to justify exposing children to life-long adult sentences in the name of public safety.”

As Montoya waits for his sentencing hearing, Marlowe is already preparing to file an appeal on the grounds that Ellington committed a reversible error by ruling that self defense was not an available argument for the jury to consider.

“There was evidence all over the place it was self defense, from the state and from the witness stand,” Marlowe says. “That’s a jury question; not a judge’s question.”

Read SFR’s daily coverage of the trial here.

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