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Plea deal vacates Costilla County rancher trial

Posted: Thursday, Jul 18th, 2013




Courier staff writer

SAN LUIS — Prosecutors on Wednesday formally dropped the case against a Costilla County rancher accused of threatening several officials, based on their belief that a jury would not convict him.

Gene Martinez’s retrial on a felony menacing charge was scheduled to begin yesterday and run through Friday. But 12th Judicial District Judge Michael Gonzales vacated the proceedings when attorneys for both sides announced that they reached a plea deal.

Under the agreement, the 72-year-old man pleaded guilty to possession of a prohibited weapon, a Class 2 misdemeanor offense.

Judge Gonzales, in turn, placed Martinez on supervised probation for 18 months, and ordered him to write letters of apology to Costilla County Sheriff’s Deputy Cruz Soto and former Deputy Celena Martinez.

However, the judge declined to impose any jail time, as recommended by Deputy District Attorney Rob White.

“I’ve got a 72-year-old man who in 72 years has never been in jail,” he said.

“I think given the circumstances and given the plea you entered, to put you in jail is not the appropriate (sentence),” he added.

The case against Gene Martinez centered around an April 2012 water rights dispute.

Authorities alleged that he threatened a Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association member, as well as Deputies Soto and Celena Martinez, by pulling a gun on them.

Gene Martinez denies that claim, although he acknowledged on Wednesday that the incident was serious.

It was so serious that it led to an eight-hour standoff with law enforcement officials, which ended only when SWAT team members and other agency partners dispersed tear gas into the defendant’s cabin.

If the case had gone to trial, Soto said he would have been able to identify Gene Martinez. In addition, he would have testified that the defendant pulled a gun on him, he said.

“I just want the court to know that it was a serious situation,” Soto said Wednesday. “It could have taken a very different turn than it did.”

During his career in law enforcement, other people have shot at him and pointed guns at him, he said. Over the long run, he said, those events do take a toll on people in his line of work.

Soto noted that Celena Martinez left her position with the sheriff’s office not long after the April 2012 standoff occurred.

While authorities maintain that Gene Martinez was at fault, his supporters have said that law enforcement’s response to the incident is impossible to justify. They also claimed that media reports unfairly portrayed the defendant as an “armed and dangerous” gunman.

They said the situation began when the disabled military veteran confronted a neighboring property owner who diverted water from the San Francisco ditch, or acequia, out of turn.

Things worsened, they said, when the sheriff’s office took over the acequia mediation process, and the situation soured even further when authorities declined friends’ and family members’ offers to help out.

Instead, authorities bombarded and then ransacked his residence, while destroying a neighbor’s home, they said.

Judge Gonzales acknowledged on Wednesday that the current water situation is bad, and he predicted that it will get worse over time. On occasion, he said, disputes may spill out beyond the courtroom setting.

“But we can’t have that,” he said.

The judge was careful not to dismiss Martinez’s version of what happened that day. But he said the defendant could have handled the situation differently.

“Your decision was not the best one,” he said. “Look at the outcome — somebody could have been seriously hurt.”

Whether or not someone agrees with a law enforcement agent’s approach, members of the public have to show that official the proper respect, he said.

There may be instances when officers are at fault, he said, but there are legal remedies to address those situations.

“If they do it wrong, we deal with it later on in court,” he said.

Martinez —a former law enforcement officer himself — would have expected the same respect if he’d been in a similar situation on the job.

“I guarantee it,” the judge said.

Martinez nodded his head.

Judge Gonzales ultimately ordered Martinez to surrender any weapons that are still in the defendant’s possession, and to refrain from contact with the other parties in the case.

Under the additional terms of his sentence, Martinez must perform 100 hours of useful public service. He will also be required to pay a $100 fine, which the court reduced from an imposed amount of $500.

After everything that came before it, the hearing turned out to be somewhat of a surprise.

Martinez’s original trial began in late April, but Judge Gonzales declared a mistrial after the first day of jury selections.

By that point, 12 jurors had already taken their seats, and the judge was prepared to move forward with the trial.

But he subsequently learned that under a revised state law, the court could not go any further until attorneys for both sides found an alternate juror.

That turned out to be a problem, because they’d already exhausted the jury pool. The trial could have proceeded if everyone who received summonses reported to the courthouse that day. But as it was, nearly three-dozen people failed to show up for jury duty.

A substitute courthouse security guard may have inadvertently compromised the trial, as well, when he mistakenly closed the jury selection process to the public. In doing so, the guard likely violated Martinez’s Sixth Amendment right to a public trial.
















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