Courier staff writer
CONEJOS — When Francisco Quintana aimed a rifle at Zachary Rodriguez and shot him, he was either acting in self-defense, or else he unnecessarily put the young man’s life at risk.
It will be up to a Conejos County jury to decide how the events in the early morning hours of Aug. 7, 2011 actually unfolded, based on the evidence its members see and hear throughout this week.
During their first full day of service on Tuesday, the 10 women and three men on the jury listened closely as attorneys for both sides gave their opening arguments in the attempted second-degree murder case.
Quintana, who was 17 years old at the time of the incident, also stands accused of first-degree assault, felony menacing with a deadly weapon and unlawful possession of a Schedule II controlled substance (cocaine).
Rodriguez himself testified that the incident began as the result of a drug deal gone awry.
According to his testimony, he accompanied a woman to Quintana’s Capulin-area home, where she planned to buy cocaine from the defendant.
It was a situation that he didn’t think he should be in, Rodriguez said. But when he began to feel that Quintana was ripping the woman off, Rodriguez said he challenged him to fight for her money.
“I stepped in right there and said: ‘hey, man — it’s not going to happen. It’s not going to go down like this,’” Rodriguez testified.
At that point, Quintana rushed out of the room. Just before he did, Rodriguez was hit with a feeling that Quintana was going to go for a gun.
“Basically, I saw the look in his eyes,” he said.
Quintana had a head start out of the room, but Rodriguez was not far behind him. Yet as he emerged from the doorway, Rodriguez testified that Quintana was already standing at or near the top of a staircase, aiming a rifle at him.
While Rodriguez stood at the bottom of the stairs, Quintana fired what appeared to be a warning shot in his direction, he said. But instead of retreating from the line of fire, Rodriguez said he made a split-second decision to go after the rifle as fast as he could.
“When you get in that stage of fight or flight, your body just does what it does,” he said. “It was just like: ‘Whoa! A gun. Get it! Get it!”
As Rodriguez started to rush up the stairs, he testified that Quintana took one step back, cocked the rifle and fired, striking the middle of his chest.
Deputy District Attorney Mark Loy told the jury that the defendant shot at Rodriguez even though the alleged victim was unarmed.
In the moments beforehand, Loy noted that Rodriguez never slapped, punched or touched Quintana in a threatening way.
“He was never a threat to the defendant’s life, or anyone else’s life,” he added.
If Quintana felt that he needed to get away from Rodriguez, Loy said there were many ways he could have exited the house. Telephones were also within reach, he said.
Loy also found inconsistencies with Quintana’s version of events.
Rodriguez was a guest in the Quintana family’s home that morning, he said, and there was never a break-in, as the defendant initially reported.
Defense attorney Francisco Martinez said the evidence shows that some of the things that happened early that morning “weren’t very nice,” and acknowledged that Quintana would admit that some of his conduct was not civil.
The question of civility is important to the case, Martinez said. But the defense believes there was a lack of civility on the part of the alleged victim.
Martinez told the jury that Quintana felt threatened by Rodriguez’s behavior in the moments leading up to the shooting, so he fired two shots from a .22-caliber rifle. The first shot was just a warning, he said. But Quintana will testify that he ultimately felt he had no option but to shoot Rodriguez.
“You’re going to have to put yourself into Mr. Quintana’s shoes to (decide) if his actions were reasonable,” Martinez told the jurors.
Whether it was justified or not, the shooting caused extensive injuries.
When he arrived at Conejos County Hospital in La Jara, Rodriguez was able to speak, although he complained that he was short of breath.
It turned out that Rodriguez was suffering from a partially collapsed lung, according to testimony from Dr. David Lenderts, a former emergency room physician at the facility.
The patient was also bleeding heavily. By the time Lenderts placed a tube inside Rodriguez’s chest, it was filled with over a pint of blood.
An x-ray exam later confirmed Lenderts’ initial diagnosis that the .22-caliber bullet moved downward and hit Rodriguez’s kidney, causing further damage.
“It can zip around in the body and create holes wherever it goes,” he said.
The injuries were so severe that Rodriguez was flown to Memorial Hospital in Colorado Springs — the nearest facility where a thoracic surgeon was available.
Today, nearly 18 months after the incident occurred, the bullet remains lodged near Rodriguez’s spinal area.
“When it gets really, really cold, it hurts, but otherwise, it’s not too bad,” he said.
It could have been worse. Looking back on the incident, Rodriguez testified that he might not be around if Quintana hadn’t called 911 immediately.
“In a nutshell, he saved my life. I would be dead if it wasn’t for him,” he said.