A man accused of stabbing his girlfriend to death in 2017, then beating their neighbor with a crutch and knifing a passing bicyclist, pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter Tuesday as part of a plea agreement that calls for him to serve 12 years in prison.
Prosecutors for more than two years had been preparing to put Christopher Garcia, 28, on trial for killing Selena Valencia, 21.
But their case was crippled in June when the Santa Fe Police Department admitted it had lost important evidence, including fingernail clippings taken from Valencia’s body. Garcia’s attorney argued the lost items could have proven someone else attacked her.
State District Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer last month denied public defender Jennifer Burrill’s motion to dismiss the charges, but it appears the missing evidence issue prompted the plea agreement, which Marlowe Sommer accepted Tuesday without comment.
“The state would have liked to have more time for Mr. Garcia, but the evidence issues made the risk of going to trial substantial, which is why the state agreed to this plea,” said Deputy District Attorney Todd Bullion.
When putting the factual basis for the plea on the record, Bullion said Garcia did “in the heat of passion … kill Ms. Valencia in a sudden quarrel, stabbing her multiple times.”
Valencia’s aunt, Maxine Sandoval, declined on the behalf of the family to comment immediately after the hearing but said, “This caught us by surprise.”
District Attorney’s Office spokesman Henry Varela said in a statement Tuesday: “Ms. Valencia’s family was advised of the plea and the family did express that they supported the decision to enter into a plea due to the significant risk that Mr. Garcia may have escaped punishment entirely if the case had gone to trial due to the lost evidence.”
Sandoval read a statement during the sentencing hearing in which she remembered Valencia has “a loving, kind and generous person who showed love to those who never knew love, and gave love to those who never deserved love.”
Police said that after stabbing Valencia in a home they shared at Vista Alegre Apartments in southwest Santa Fe, Garcia left her to die in a pool of her own blood. He then beat a man in a neighboring apartment with a crutch and stabbed a bicyclist riding past the housing complex before officers found him about six hours later.
“The District Attorney’s Office did reach out to the other victims that were injured,” Varela said in an email, “but they evaded multiple attempts to contact them as they did not want to participate in this matter.”
Garcia had been scheduled to stand trial next week on a charge of first-degree murder and seven other felony counts, including aggravated burglary, two counts of aggravated battery, three counts of tampering with evidence and concealing identity.
Under the terms of his plea agreement, Garcia pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter. He also pleaded guilty to two of the tampering charges. The remaining charges were dismissed.
The plea also settled two new heroin possession charges the state filed against Garcia on Monday — one tied to the day of Valencia’s death and another linked to a September incident.
With more than two years’ credit for time served awaiting trial in the Santa Fe County jail, Garcia will enter the prison system with less than 10 years to serve — time that could be further reduced if he earns credit for good behavior.
Asked to comment on the outcome of the case Tuesday, Santa Fe Deputy Chief of Police Ben Valdez said department officials felt prosecutors could have convicted Garcia without the missing evidence.
“We are confident sufficient evidence existed to proceed to trial and demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Garcia is responsible for the violent death of Ms. Valencia,” Valdez wrote in an email.
The Garcia case exposed troubling issues with the Santa Fe Police Department’s methods for maintaining criminal evidence.
After Valencia’s fingernail clippings and hairs taken from her body were determined to have been lost, the court ordered an audit of evidence in the case, which was conducted by Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office crime scene technician Shari Vialpando.
Vialpando wrote in her report that she discovered multiple instances in which the police department did not follow its own policies regarding the handling, storage and tracking of evidence.
She said the missing evidence in the Garcia case might be found co-mingled with evidence from other cases.
Valdez said Tuesday the department is preparing to conduct an audit of all the evidence in its possession but didn’t look for the Garcia evidence again after Vialpando’s partial audit.
“It is possible once our independent audit is completed, protocols are updated and property in our evidence room is inventoried with the recommended method resulting from the independent audit that the misplaced items of evidence may turn up,” Valdez wrote in an email. “To begin opening other sealed evidence items would not be prudent and could compromise additional cases.”
Valdez said in his email that any future evidence issues that arise in other cases will be handled on a case-by-case basis.
Asked what the department intends to do to restore public confidence in the reliability of the its handling of evidence, Valdez said the department had already initiated an independent evaluation of its practices before the Garcia case brought issues to light and is moving forward with that process.
“The independent auditor contracted … to complete the audit began the process with a pre-audit visit Sept. 3-6, 2019 and additional advanced training for the police commander responsible for the department’s evidence management is scheduled in November 2019,” Valdez wrote.
“Processes were identified that were able to be remedied immediately, such as issues identified with labeling and packaging evidence both for submission and upon transfer from the laboratory and the Office of the Medical Investigator,” he added.
Valdez said all personnel who handle evidence have been directed to review the department’s evidence management policies.