Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The East Mountain Triple Homicide

by Donna Pendergast

It's going on a decade since that night in May 1999, when three teens were gunned down in the East Mountains of Albuquerque, New Mexico while returning home from a graduation party in an incident that would later become known as the East Mountain Triple Homicide.

On May 29th, 1999, around 11:30 pm, 16-year-old Luis Garcia and his friends Kevin Shirley and Matthew Hunt, both seventeen years old, (pictured above Shirley, Hunt, Garcia) were murdered in a barrage of 24 bullets as they sat in Kevin's car at the intersection of Pinon Hills and Jennifer Drive.

Despite a massive investigation and a $100,000.00 plus reward the case remained a
mystery for years until 2006, when a 27-year-old drifter, Brandon Craig, was arrested after being identified by three individuals who claimed to have witnessed the shootings. Craig was charged with three counts of murder and three counts of child abuse on the basis of the statements made by the newly discovered witnesses.

The case went to trial last month. Key to the prosecution case were the witnesses that belatedly came forward with details of the murder: Craig's former girlfriend,
Jocelyn Schneider; Craig's cousin, Luke Morris; and an associate of Craig's named Jeffrey Moore. All three testified that they spent the afternoon of the murder getting high on drugs.

Per Schneider's testimony, during the course of that afternoon, the subject of a $500 drug debt that Kevin Shirley allegedly owed to Schneider came up in conversation. At some point, Craig, under the belief that he owned everything that Schneider owned, decided that he wanted to collect on that debt. Collecting that debt became a mission for Craig and the three drove to the party where Shirley was but left after Craig and Shirley argued over the money.

Schneider testified that after leaving, Craig decided to return to the party and confront Shirley again. Before they they could turn around they observed Shirley's vehicle heading in the opposite direction with Garcia and Hunt as passengers. Craig decided to chase Shirley's car and eventually cut it off blocking their path. He then went to the window and begin arguing with Shirley again. Craig then went back to Schneider's vehicle, pulled out a rifle and started firing into Shirley's car at close range.

On April 2nd, after a two-week trial, Craig was acquitted of all counts after two days of jury deliberations. Although some jurors later expressed misgivings about their decision, feeling that Craig probably was the shooter, they felt that there was too much doubt for conviction. Inconsistencies in the witnesses testimony, the lack of physical evidence tying Craig to the murders, and the unreliability of key witnesses who all had rap sheets of their own, all contributed to the not-guilty verdict. Other factors that didn't help were Schneider admitting to lying to a grand jury and sending text messages to Morris's sister asking for details of the crime so that they could get their testimony to match.

Reaction to the verdict has been mixed in the news and on Internet chat forums. Many are passionate about their opinion that a murderer walked free. Others are equally adamant that the system worked as it should with the not-guilty verdict being the end result of contradictory and sparse evidence. Whatever your opinion, the fact remains that not-guilty verdicts create as many questions as they do answers.

Did the State proceed with a case that they should have never charged because of the paucity of the evidence? In my opinion, the answer is no. When you have three witnesses saying pretty much the same thing that is a case that a jury needs to decide. In my experience there are always inconsistencies between witnesses testimony. That is why jurors in Michigan are instructed that people see and hear things differently and that they need to keep that in mind when determining whether a witness is being truthful.

Another question that has been asked is whether a person with a checkered past who has lied to a grand jury can be relied upon as a witness. I don't think that there is any correct answer to that question. Certainly a person who has made mistakes in the past can be reliable as a witness. More troubling is the issue of lying under oath to a
grand jury. The question has to be asked how testimony under oath in a trial can be relied on when the witness has lied under oath before.

A lot of Internet posters have speculated that the eyewitnesses would have had more credibility if they had been charged as aiders and abettors for their roles in the crime. That begs the real question of whether the key witnesses were aiders and abettors or were merely present at the crime, which does not make them culpable under the law.

A not-guilty verdict is always a reminder to police and prosecutors that we don't make evidence; we only do what we can with the cards that we are dealt. However, it doesn't take the sting out of a "not guilty" verdict on a case like the East Mountain triple homicide.

Statements made in this post are my own and are not intended to reflect the views, opinions, or position of the Michigan Attorney General or the Michigan Department of Attorney General.

1 comment:

Leah said...

Unfortunately our judicial isn't fool proof and there will be the occasional times when a perp is aquitted when he should have been convicted. All we can do is learn from these mistakes.