New Mexico State Police has paid a $200,000 settlement to Joseph Vigil, a Chimayó man who filed a lawsuit against the department in 2018, claiming he spent nearly a year in jail charged with a 2012 murder he didn’t commit.
Meanwhile, the department is asking a District Court judge to dismiss similar claims made by Vigil’s co-defendant, Joe Martinez, who also sued the department in connection with the case.
The killing Vigil and Martinez were accused of committing nearly eight years ago remains unsolved, and lawyers who worked on the case blame poor police work and prosecutors under three district attorneys who forged ahead despite mounting evidence the two men didn’t commit the crime.
“People getting wrongly charged actually happens way more than people think, and it does unbelievable damage. Not just to the people involved,” said attorney Ryan Villa, who filed the civil case against the state on behalf of Martinez and Vigil. “It bogs down the system, uses resources that shouldn’t be used and it puts people in jail, which causes damage you can’t undo. And the most important thing: The real person that did it doesn’t get caught.”
Vigil, now 29, and Martinez, now 38, were charged with killing Juanito Martinez, 23, who was found shot through the back of the neck near the driveway of his ex-girlfriend’s home in Chimayó on the morning of Aug. 5, 2012. The two Martinezes are not related.
Joe Martinez could not be reached for comment. Court records indicate he has not been participating in his own civil case against state police in which he is seeking similar damages.
Attempts to reach the family of Juanito Martinez also were unsuccessful.
Rio Arriba County sheriff’s deputies were the first to investigate Juanito Martinez’s death. They spoke to some of the victim’s acquaintances, who said there had been bad blood between him and his former girlfriend’s family. Deputies also interviewed a witness who said she had seen two women matching the description of the former girlfriend and her mother driving away from the scene with a third person in the back seat, according to court records.
Deputies later interviewed a man who claimed to have witnessed the murder. According to court records, the man told police he’d seen Joe Martinez and Vigil beat Juanito Martinez at a party and load his unconscious body into a truck.
The witness told police Juanito Martinez regained consciousness in the back of the moving truck and tried to escape, but the men began shooting at him, according to an affidavit for an arrest warrant.
The sheriff’s office did not arrest anyone following its investigation, but in 2014, state police Agent Joey Gallegos Sr. took over the case.
The man who had claimed to be an eyewitness to the killing recanted his story in 2015, attorney Villa said in a recent interview.
Villa and other sources said the investigator knew about the recantation. Nevertheless, he filed applications for arrest warrants for Joe Martinez and Vigil. The warrants relied heavily on statements of the man who said he’d witnessed the killing. Joe Martinez was arrested and charged with first-degree murder in June 2016; Vigil was arrested on the same charge in October of that year.
“I was terrified,” Vigil said in a recent phone interview from his home in Chimayó. “I was fearing for my life. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in prison for something I didn’t do. It was so stressful. I knew the truth would come out eventually, because I knew I didn’t do it. But then you are thinking, ‘What if we go to trial and they convict me like they did at grand jury?’ ”
Gallegos, who retired in November, could not be reached for comment Friday.
Vigil said he did know Juanito Martinez and had partied with him a few days before he was killed. But, Vigil said, he was on his way to Albuquerque at the time it’s believed Juanito Martinez was shot, a fact he said Villa was able to establish based on cellphone records.
Vigil’s criminal defense lawyer, Ben Ortega, said Assistant District Attorney Benjamin Schrope, who initially prosecuted the case, also knew the state’s key witness had recanted, but he failed to share that information with the judge at pretrial detention hearings.
The two men remained jailed awaiting a trial that was set to start Aug. 8, 2017.
Schrope, who no longer works for the First Judicial District Attorney’s Office, declined to comment Friday.
In July 2017, less than a month before trial, the District Attorney’s Office dismissed the charges against the two men, citing “the best interest of justice.”
By then, Joe Martinez had spent about a year in jail and Vigil had been locked up for about eight months.
Villa filed the civil complaint against New Mexico State Police on behalf of the two defendants in June 2018, claiming they’d been wrongly arrested, falsely imprisoned and subjected to malicious prosecution.
In June 2019, state police agreed to pay Vigil $200,000 to drop his case.
Villa said three different administrations at the District Attorney’s Office were involved in the case over the years.
He said former District Attorney Angela “Spence” Pacheco declined to prosecute the case after the original investigation, but her successors — former District Attorney Jennifer Padgett, who’s now a deputy district attorney, and current District Attorney Marco Serna — both elected to go forward.
“The District Attorney’s Office stands by the decision to present the case against Vigil and Martinez to the Rio Arriba Grand Jury,” District Attorney’s Office spokesman Henry Varela wrote in an email Friday. “At the time … the DA’s office knew that [the witness] did not want to testify against Martinez and Vigil and that he was not cooperative with prosecution. As the ADA prepared the case for trial, it became evident that the prosecution could not overcome legal issues and prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Varela wrote one of the considerations was the recanting of the witness during a pretrial interview.
“Rather than risk acquittal … we decided it was best to dismiss the case pending additional investigation,” he wrote. “It is tragic that years later, the DA’s office still does not have the evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt who killed Juanito, and that his killer walks free. The DA’s office and law enforcement know that people amongst us have information regarding the murder of Juanito and we hope that those people have the courage to come forward.”
State police spokesman Dusty Francisco said in an email the Juanito Martinez case is “currently inactive” but the department will follow up on any new leads.
State police and the District Attorney’s Office would not directly address whether Joe Martinez and Vigil are still potential suspects in the case, with each agency referring the question to the other.
“Because there is pending civil litigation that we are not party to,” Varela said in an email, “it would not be appropriate for us to make a comment regarding anything related to this case.”
Since his release, Vigil said, he’s been unable to find employment and has become a homebody because he’s feels people are judging him when he’s out in the community.
“They just look at me like I was the killer,” he said. “Nobody listens to my side of the story.”
Vigil declined to speculate who might have killed Juanito Martinez.
“I don’t want to wrongly accuse somebody,” he said. “I just hope they find the people that really did it because I feel for Juanito’s family and I know they want justice for their grandson and their son.”