N.M. Supreme Court upholds murder conviction of ‘witch hunter’

By John Miller
jmiller@taosnews.com
Posted 7/19/18

The New Mexico Supreme Court this month upheld a Taos jury's decision to convict a West Virginia man of murdering a woman whose body was found near Carson on Christmas Day 2014.

Ivan Dennings …

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N.M. Supreme Court upholds murder conviction of ‘witch hunter’

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The New Mexico Supreme Court this month upheld a Taos jury's decision to convict a West Virginia man of murdering a woman whose body was found near Carson on Christmas Day 2014.

Ivan Dennings Cales, a drifter who became known as the "witch hunter" after telling a witness he believed murder victim Roxanne Houston had cast a spell on him, was found guilty of first-degree murder and two counts of tampering with evidence in March 2016.

Following trial, Taos District Court Judge Sarah Backus sentenced Cales to life in prison, plus three years for the tampering with evidence charges.

Cales, who was 51 when convicted, asked the New Mexico Supreme Court to reverse the decision later that year. The state high court denied his request and upheld his conviction Monday (July 16).

In the appeal, Cales argued that both insufficient and faulty evidence had been presented during trial to find him guilty of killing Houston, who had moved from Colorado to Taos about a year before she went missing in the summer of 2014.

After Houston's boyfriend reported her missing, Taos County law enforcement initially interviewed Cales as a person of interest. Investigators had learned that Cales had been in contact with Houston, and lived for a time with her and her boyfriend in the Two Peaks area west of Taos.

Cales fled the Taos area following the interview, and investigators assumed he had fled the state.

Hikers discovered Houston's remains buried in a shallow grave about 23 miles from Taos on Dec. 31, 2014. An autopsy determined that she had died from a single gunshot to her forehead.

Cales was later arrested at a Santa Fe homeless shelter and charged with Houston's murder in February 2015.

Although Cales denied possessing a firearm during his initial interview with law enforcement, a gun would later be connected to him by a witness. Investigators linked the characteristics of a round fired from the gun's chamber to the bullet found in Houston's skull.

Throughout trial, prosecutors relied on testimony from two key witnesses, Michael Thebo and Raymond Martínez, who both testified that Cales had talked about killing "witches."

In his appeal, Cales argued that the witness testimony was "inadmissible character evidence," under state law.

The Supreme Court Justices determined, however, that the evidence had been presented properly and affirmed that the Taos jury had been provided with proper instructions in order to return a guilty verdict in the case.

Cales's attorney also argued in the appeal that one interview with investigators should not have been presented at trial.

In the interview, investigators failed to read Cales his Miranda rights prior to beginning their line of questioning. The investigators also utilized "coercive tactics," having warned Cales that he could spend a minimum of a year-and-a-half in prison if he failed to answer questions.While investigators eventually read Cales his Miranda warning, the defendant had already responded to questions.

After the interview was played at trial, Judge Backus sent the jury out of the courtroom and conferred with the attorneys, determining that investigators had violated the Miranda warning process and that the interview should have been suppressed at a prior hearing.

When the jury returned to the courtroom, Backus advised them of the complication and determined that the trial would resume.

While the justices agreed the interview had been admitted in error, they determined that Backus had sufficiently remedied the situation in order for the trial to continue.

Ultimately, they found Cales had failed to produce evidence that justified a reversal of the murder conviction.

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