By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer
New Mexico’s supreme court has overturned convictions of a Clovis man for a 2006 murder.
In a unanimous decision issued Tuesday, the court ruled that hearsay evidence was improperly allowed into the trial of Robert Macias, who was sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder in the killing of Wilfred Salas Jr. in January 2006.
District Attorney Matt Chandler, who tried the case against Macias in 2007, said the state attorney general’s office has expressed it respects the opinion of the trial judge Joe Parker, when he allowed the evidence, and is planning to submit a motion to have the case reheard.
Chandler said they also plan to request the court hear oral arguments in the case, which they were not given an opportunity to do prior to Tuesday’s ruling.
In the event the court refuses the hearing and stays with its opinion, Chandler said he will retry the case.
“The fact that the supreme court is proposing to overturn a 12-person, unanimous verdict due to a claim that a two-minute phone call was hearsay is difficult to accept. I understand, however, that when we are dealing with the lost life of a victim and the liberty of the accused we must strive for perfection,” he said.
“It is the nature of our system, and we will respect the supreme court’s opinion if they elect not to hear oral arguments. If that is the case we will retry Macias with belief that the next jury will reach the exact same verdict.”
Police found 19-year-old Salas slumped over in the driver’s seat in a parking lot at Merriwether and Seventh streets with a gunshot wound to the back of the head. He died later at a Lubbock hospital.
Macias, 33, was also convicted of shooting at a motor vehicle and sentenced to an additional 22 years.
The supreme court vacated Macias’ convictions and sent the case back to the district court in Curry County for a possible new trial, but by law the attorney general’s office has 15 days to file a motion for the court to hear the case again.
In the Tuesday decision, justices said recorded telephone conversations between Macias’ girlfriend and her cousin discussing the killing should not have been played for the jury as evidence because their statements were hearsay. The cousin was in jail at the time.
The girlfriend, Jessica Gutierrez, was not a witness to the killing but her recorded statements incriminated Macias.
Gutierrez had talked to Macias on the night of the killing and had a phone call with her cousin where she told about Macias making admissions to her.
At the time the call was played in court, Gutierrez testified it was her voice on the recording and she acknowledged the statements she made.
The justices ruled that Parker erred when he allowed the phone call in front of the jury and said even though a conviction was likely anyway, to ignore Parker’s error in an effort to avoid draining judicial resources would be to condone errors and risk the integrity of appeal reviews.
“There was undoubtedly sufficient evidence to convict (the) defendant, even if the phone call had not been introduced,” they said, however, the ruling determined it was the “marked emphasis” placed on the call by the prosecutor that made Parker’s error harmful and they believe caused it to affect the verdict.
Chandler said it is his position and that of the attorney general’s office that Parker’s ruling was sound and supported by case law when he allowed the conversation to be played for the jury.
Macias will remain in the custody of the Department of Corrections throughout the appeal process and in the event there is a new trial.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report