Courier staff writer
SAN LUIS — After a full and exhausting day of jury selections, a judge declared a mistrial in the case of a Costilla County rancher charged with two counts of felony menacing.
Twelfth Judicial District Judge Michael Gonzales had been prepared to move forward with Gene Martinez’s jury trial, despite the fact that no alternates made it on to the panel.
But the judge acknowledged Thursday that he didn’t necessarily take a revised state law into consideration before he made his initial decision. Once he had a chance to review the updated law, he determined an alternate juror must be seated in Martinez’s case.
“I know that it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but that’s the law as it is at this time,” he said Thursday morning, before he dismissed the 12 women and men in the jury box.
The judge repeatedly apologized to the audience’s members for the inconvenience, and he thanked them for taking their civic responsibilities seriously.
As for those who did not, they can expect to receive contempt of court citations — and stern lectures on their civic duties under the law — in the very near future.
Judge Gonzales initially estimated that close to 50 potential Costilla County jurors failed to report to the court on April 24, the day the voir dire process began. (He later narrowed that number down to 31 or 32 people.)
While some of those people may have moved away from the county, the judge said that others — including some residents he knows — simply failed to show up.
If half of them responded to their summonses, the court would have had enough prospective jurors to complete the selection process, he said.
But as it was, the jury pool was completely drained by late Wednesday afternoon.
Judge Gonzales told attorneys for both sides he was “quite upset” by the turnout.
He vowed he will address the no-shows’ lack of responsibility and lack of respect toward the court in the very near future.
“To flat-out ignore or disregard a jury summons or to forget about it is inexcusable,” he said a few minutes later.
The judge had considered the possibility of ordering the sheriff’s department to round up additional county residents and then bring them to the courthouse in San Luis. Ultimately, however, he determined that process could take a full day.
“I don’t think that’s a wise use or wise choice of the court’s resources, the sheriff’s office or your time,” he told the jurors.
At first, it seemed like the defense and prosecution were on the verge of finding another solution.
While the jurors were still sequestered in an adjoining room, Deputy Public Defender Marcie Goldstein asked the judge if he would be willing to accept a plea agreement.
But after a lengthy recess, both Goldstein and Deputy District Attorney Rob White informed the court they were unable to reach a deal.
The case is now heading toward a July 17-19 trial date, barring a resolution between now and then.
It centers around an April 2012 dispute over water rights.
Authorities allege that Martinez threatened a Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association member and two Costilla County Sheriff’s deputies by pulling a gun on them.
The sheriff’s office said at the time that its employees acted valiantly to defuse the situation without resorting to deadly force.
It didn’t end at that moment, however.
An eight-hour standoff with law enforcement officials came to a halt only when SWAT team members and other agency partners dispersed tear gas into the defendant’s cabin.
While they were working to coordinate the authorized effort, Martinez allegedly evaded arrest; he remained at large for more than two weeks.
Martinez’s supporters say that law enforcement’s response to the incident is impossible to justify; they also maintain that media reports unfairly portrayed the defendant as an “armed and dangerous” gunman.
They say 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 say, 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 say.
“When he realized that the situation had ballooned to an out-of-control scene, Gene left the ranch as he feared for his safety and his life,” the Friends of Gene Martinez Legal Defense Fund says on its Facebook page.
Martinez, who was 70 years old at the time, went on to seek the advice of legal counsel before he finally surrendered to authorities, the group says.