Testimony began Tuesday in the vehicular homicide trial of Alexis St. James, a 67-year-old Santa Fe woman accused of causing a fatal crash that killed a motorcyclist, then driving away without calling for help.
Anthony Archuleta of Santa Fe was killed in the September 2017 crash.
“It comes down to the fact that Ms. St. James had a margarita and a mini-margarita to drink and she turned in front of Mr. Archuleta and caused him to crash into her. She left the scene without checking on him and making sure everything was OK,” prosecutor Heather Smallwood said during her opening arguments.
St. James’ side airbags deployed and her rear bumper came off after the collision at the intersection of St. Michael’s Drive and Pacheco Street, Smallwood said. Archuleta’s motorcycle slid beneath her vehicle, but St. James continued driving before parking a few blocks away.
Smallwood said police were able to locate St. James because a witness had followed her.
Smallwood said the crash happened on a Saturday during the annual Fiesta de Santa Fe weekend, but St. James’ defense attorney, Val Whitley, said the annual celebration wasn’t a factor.
“She was doing what a lot of people do in this town: They go have lunch, they have a margarita, maybe a drink and half,” Whitley said. “That was her normal routine.”
Whitley said her client looked before she turned left from St. Michael’s Drive onto Pacheco Street and never saw the 50-year-old Archuleta coming because he was speeding and had just run a red light.
As for her having fled the scene, Whitley said St. James panicked and slowly went a few blocks before parking in plain sight.
“It wasn’t a hit-and-run,” he said. “She got hit.”
“Mr. Archuleta looked like he was celebrating fiestas that day,” Whitley added, telling jurors toxicology reports revealed the victim had a blood alcohol level of 0.15 and morphine in his system at the time of the crash, as well as BB’s of heroin stashed in a cigarette pack in his pocket.
St. James’ blood alcohol was measured at 0.12, her attorney said Tuesday, above the legal limit for presumptive intoxication of 0.08 in New Mexico. But he argued the blood draw wasn’t reliable because it wasn’t taken until three hours after the crash and sat unrefrigerated for four days before being sent to the lab.
Both sides told jurors they’ll present witnesses and expert testimony this week that will prove their version of events.
The trial nearly ended before it began when Whitley asked the court to declare a mistrial during the testimony of the state’s first witness, New Mexico State Police agent Jeremy Strickland.
Strickland testified about having gone to Tomasita’s after the crash to investigate who had served St. James and how much she’d had to drink. Under questioning from Smallwood, he said he had issued the server a citation for selling to an intoxicated person, adding state statute defines that as someone with a blood alcohol level of 0.14 or above.
That’s when Whitley objected.
“We had a hearing on this issue,” Whitley argued outside the presence of the jury. “And the court instructed [the state] to instruct Agent Strickland not to say what he just said.”
Whitely said the court had already determined at a pretrial hearing that Strickland was not qualified to speculate on what St. James’ blood alcohol levels might have been, adding whether Strickland had ignored the instruction or not understood it, he’d made statements on the issue.
“I’m asking for a mistrial,” Whitley said.
State District Judge T. Glenn Ellington sustained Whitley’s objection but declined to declare a mistrial.
Instead, he chose to dismiss Strickland, directed the jury to disregard all of his previous testimony and had it stricken from the record.
St. James is charged with vehicular homicide, leaving the scene of an accident involving great bodily harm or death and several misdemeanor traffic citations in the case. If convicted on all counts, she faces a maximum penalty of more than 16 years in prison.
The trial is scheduled to continue through Friday.