Home News Mistrial declared for New Mexico Sheriff accused of aiding a felon

Mistrial declared for New Mexico Sheriff accused of aiding a felon

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Sheriff Lujan (Source: Rio Arriba County Sheriff / Video)


Phaedra Haywood

The Santa Fe New Mexican

A state district judge declared a mistrial Friday afternoon after jurors were unable to reach a unanimous decision on two charges against Rio Arriba County Sheriff James Lujan.

Lujan, 60, was charged with aiding a felon and intimidating a witness — both felonies — in relation to a 2017 incident in which he was accused of helping Phillip Chacon, a former Española city councilor, evade police after Chacon led officers on a high-speed chase.

Jurors heard nearly two days of testimony and deliberated for about seven hours over two days before informing state District Judge Kathleen McGarry Ellenwood they were deadlocked.

Jurors had been split 8-4 in favor of acquittal, jury foreman Juan Diego Montoya, 20, of Española, said.

“We raised our voices,” he said. “There was a few times the bailiff came in and said we had to keep it down. But at the end of the day, I had to call it and say we’ve been in the same place for five hours.”

Those who favored acquitting Lujan felt there were too many “holes” in the case, Montoya said. Those who wanted to convict Lujan were swayed by a letter Lujan wrote to a 911 call center official regarding the incident, which they felt amounted to a confession that Lujan knew Chacon was wanted by Española police on felony charges when he picked him up that night at Chacon’s home.

“For me the biggest issue with the case was the lack of evidence,” Montoya said Friday outside the district courthouse in Tierra Amarilla, where the trial was held. “There was just too much for the jurors to have to assume.”

Another juror who spoke on condition of anonymity said three women and one man had been in favor of finding Lujan guilty. Three men and five women had wanted to acquit him.

Montoya, the jury foreman, confirmed he went to high school with Lujan’s son, Brandon Lujan — who sat a few feet from him for much of the trial — and they were in football and ski club together. But Montoya said the relationship had no bearing on his decision.

“We were friends but I hadn’t talked to him since we graduated [about three years ago],” Montoya said. “I don’t have his phone number and I don’t keep in touch with him.”

Montoya said the judge was aware of the connection before the trial and asked him during the jury selection process whether it would sway him either way.

He told her he was prepared to convict or acquit Lujan based on the evidence in the case.

“The prosecution failed to prove their case, and it showed by the jury not being able to come up with a verdict,” James Lujan said after the judge declared a mistrial.

“I believe that we’re good,” he said. “I’m happy with it right now, and I really don’t see it going to another trial. But if it does, I have all the confidence in the world with my attorneys, and I know deep in my heart that we’ve been protected by our Lord.”

Lujan’s attorney, Jason Bowles, didn’t present any witnesses or evidence on Lujan’s behalf but homed in on inconsistencies in the testimony of the state’s witnesses.

“We maintain Mr. Lujan is not guilty of any crime,” Bowles said Friday. “He’s innocent, and we were also pleased the jury also saw there is serious reasonable doubt and this is a misguided prosecution. My hope is the prosecutor will go back and decide not to retry this and waste taxpayer resources on what we believe will be another failed attempt because Mr. Lujan is not guilty.”

Ninth Judicial District Attorney Andrea Reeb, a special prosecutor appointed to try the case, said she and her team were frustrated with the outcome of the trial but respected the jury’s decision.

She said she plans to put Lujan on trial again.

The sheriff also is awaiting trial on three misdemeanor counts of resisting, evading or obstructing an officer in another case involving Chacon. Lujan allegedly showed up drunk at Chacon’s house in March 2020 as police were executing a search warrant and tried to take over the operation from local officers and New Mexico State Police.

He remains sheriff but has lost his authority to carry a gun, drive a police vehicle and make arrests.

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