Rio Arriba County Sheriff James Lujan’s next criminal trial likely will take place in Santa Fe.
One of the judges presiding over two separate cases against Lujan granted a prosecutor’s motion Monday to move a trial for the sheriff out of Rio Arriba County to avoid conflicts — something the state claimed made it difficult for jurors to render a verdict in a trial held earlier this month.
State District Judge Bryan Biedscheid said Monday he based his decision in part on the lack of physical space in the Rio Arriba County Courthouse in Tierra Amarilla and the limited number of residents in the county who could serve as jurors.
“It’s nothing against Rio Arriba County,” the judge said. “It’s just math … and the percentages involved.”
Biedscheid is presiding over a case in which the sheriff is charged with three misdemeanor counts of resisting, evading or obstructing an officer. He was accused of showing up drunk at a crime scene in Española in March 2020 and attempting to take over the operation from police.
Lujan faced trial earlier this month on felony charges of bribing or threatening a witness and harboring a felon during an incident in 2017. Both cases involve former Española City Councilor Phillip Chacon. In the 2017 case, Lujan is accused of helping Chacon evade police after he led them on a high-speed chase.
Ninth Judicial District Attorney Andrea Reeb — a special prosecutor for both cases against the sheriff — has said the state intends to retry the 2017 case after jurors deadlocked 8-4 in favor of acquittal.
She asked for the venue change for both future trials.
She said numerous factors — including the presence of the sheriff’s family members and staff throughout the courtroom in Lujan’s first trial, the lack of privacy in the deliberation room and the jurors’ knowledge that Lujan remains the top law enforcement officer in their county — combined to make the jurors feel “intimidated” and unable to deliberate without fear of repercussions.
The presence and behavior of Lujan’s family and his deputies during the trial contributed to an atmosphere that made jurors uncomfortable, Reeb said.
For example, she wrote in her motion, Lujan’s wife “arrived at the courthouse with a BBQ grill and parked her personal truck in a law enforcement parking space. … Deputies proceeded to unload the grill and have a BBQ … during the lunch break of the trial.”
The deputies, she said, “were huddled in a room at the entrance of the courtroom where passersby could see them live streaming the jury trial … Witnesses were in fact exposed to a live stream of the trial.”
One of the deputies approached a juror at a gas station, Reeb wrote in her motion.
“The juror said they had no sense of security throughout the trial,” Reeb wrote. “… Jurors felt that the deputies present were able to recognize them outside the courthouse which they indicated was intimidating.”
The physical limitations of the historic Tierra Amarilla courthouse also affected jurors’ ability to be fair and impartial, Reeb argued.
“The set-up of the courtroom alone … was prejudicial to the state,” she wrote.
“During the trial, jurors were sitting in close proximity to [Lujan’s] family. … [Lujan’s] son would stare and try to get jurors’ attention. [Lujan’s] wife would tap her foot trying to get a juror’s attention. The juror felt intimidated and afraid to speak up.”
“In addition,” Reeb’s motion said, “the jurors could hear everything outside through open windows, which made them concerned the deputies could hear their deliberations. This was extremely intimidating to them and likely prohibited them from having open deliberations as required.”
State District Judge Kathleen McGarry Ellenwood — who presided over the case — is scheduled to consider Reeb’s motion requesting a new venue for a second trial in the case later this month.
But Biedscheid ruled Monday he’ll move the trial he’s handling to Santa Fe.
Reeb had requested the trial in the 2020 case against Lujan be moved out of the First Judicial District — which includes Santa Fe, Rio Arriba and Los Alamos counties — to another part of the state. But Biedsheid said that remedy was too severe. It would be more appropriate, he said, to keep the case in the judicial district, given Lujan’s right to have the case tried in the county where he is accused of committing the crimes.
Lujan’s attorney, Jason Bowles, rejected the idea that conditions were problematic during his client’s first trial. However, he agreed that if the sheriff’s next trial were moved out of Tierra Amarilla — with its close quarters and limited dining options — it should be held in Santa Fe.
Still in dispute is whether jurors for the trial on Lujan’s misdemeanor counts will be pulled from only Santa Fe County or from both Santa Fe and Rio Arriba counties.
Reeb wants them drawn from Santa Fe County, citing Lujan’s position of authority in Rio Arriba County. Bowles said he wants jurors pulled from both counties, contending Lujan is entitled to a jury of his peers.
Bowles said if jurors appear unable to be objective based on their knowledge of Lujan or the case, they can be eliminated for cause during the jury selection process.
Biedscheid said he’ll hold another hearing to decide that issue.