TIERRA AMARILLA — In the minutes leading up to a hearing Monday before state District Judge Jason Lidyard, attorney Michael Rosenfield sat quietly in the front row of the courtroom, reading a small stack of news clippings about his client, accused killer Damian Herrera.
When Rosenfield finally stood before the judge, he argued the extensive publicity in the case would prevent Herrera from getting a fair trial in Rio Arriba County, where the defendant is charged with four counts of first-degree murder and other felonies in connection with a string of slayings across Northern New Mexico in June 2017. Herrera, who turns 23 later this month, faces a separate first-degree murder charge for a killing in Tres Piedras, which is in Taos County.
Despite opposition for a change of venue from the District Attorney’s Office, Lidyard sided with Rosenfield and granted a motion to move the trial from Rio Arriba County to neighboring Santa Fe County.
“All we want are twelve jurors and four alternates who are not predisposed to believe that he is guilty of any crime before they get sworn in as jurors,” Rosenfield told the judge. “That’s all we’re trying to do …We truly believe that in interest of justice, that he would be more likely to get a fair trial in Santa Fe County than in Rio Arriba County.”
Rosenfield said the “emotionality” in Rio Arriba County would affect the jury pool.
“The proximity … of it being in Rio Arriba County, I think, is what will be more prejudicial,” he said.
Rosenfield said a video recording of Herrera “physically assaulting” two guards at the Rio Arriba County jail after his arrest was especially worrisome. Rosenfield asserted the video should not have been released to the news media but that it may have been as part of an effort to “inflame the community and public at large against Herrera.”
“That video was shown repeatedly on the television stations … shown like every night for a week, sometimes even more than that on some of the stations,” he said. “Once you see that image on the video [of Herrera fighting with jail guards], you can’t put it out of your mind. It’s one of those things where you can’t unring the bell.”
Rosenfield said another reason to move the trial to Santa Fe County is that Herrera is being housed in the Santa Fe area, though he didn’t disclose the exact location. With the trial lasting an estimated two weeks, possibly longer, Rosenfield said it would be “better to be able to take him to court in the district courthouse in Santa Fe.”
Herrera did not attend Monday’s court hearing. Rosenfield said at the start of the hearing Herrera “did not want to be present for this hearing.”
The string of killings that Herrera is accused of committing reverberated across Northern New Mexico.
He is accused of slaying three relatives: his mother, Maria “Brenda” Rosita Gallegos, 49; his brother, Brendon Herrera, 20; and stepfather Max Trujillo Sr., 55, after an argument at the family home in La Madera.
Authorities suspect Herrera killed 61-year-old Michael Kyte, who had recently retired as the west district archaeologist for Carson National Forest, about two hours later after Herrera ran out of gas and asked Kyte for help.
Herrera then stole Kyte’s truck, police said. That evening, outside Bode’s General Store in Abiquiú, investigators believe Herrera shot and killed Manuel Serrano, 59, a respected family man from Cañones who worked at the Georgia O’Keeffe house and studio.
Rio Arriba County sheriff’s deputies found and pursued Herrera shortly after the Abiquiú shooting. Officers said a high-speed pursuit ended when Herrera crashed the stolen Chevrolet pickup he was driving.
Although part of the city of Española is in Santa Fe County, Rosenfield said “there’s much more emotionality” in Rio Arriba County “because it’s a major event that took place in a relatively small community.”
Jury selection was scheduled to start in January, but Lidyard said the change in venue may change the timeline.
Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.