Two men seek settlements for being wrongfully jailed for murder.
New Mexico State Police recently paid $200,000 in settlement funds to Joseph Vigil, a Chimayó man who filed a lawsuit against the department in 2018 after being wrongfully imprisoned. Vigil alleged he was jailed for almost a year after being charged with a 2012 murder he didn’t commit. The police department is asking a District Court judge to dismiss similar claims made by Vigil’s co-defendant, Joe Martinez, after he too was imprisoned. The killing of Juanito Martinez, 23, who was shot in the back of the neck, remains unsolved. (The Martinez men are not related.)
“People getting wrongly charged actually happens way more than people think, and it does unbelievable damage. Not just to the people involved,” said attorney Ryan Villa, who filed the civil case against the state on behalf of Martinez and Vigil. “It bogs down the system, uses resources that shouldn’t be used, and it puts people in jail, which causes damage you can’t undo. And the most important thing: The real person that did it doesn’t get caught.”
Juanito Martinez was shot near the driveway of his ex-girlfriend’s home and, when investigators spoke with the victim’s acquaintances, they learned there was contention between Martinez and his former girlfriend’s family. An eye-witness said she had seen two women matching the description of the former girlfriend and her mother driving away from the scene with a third person in the back seat, according to court records. Another witness, however, indicated he saw Joe Martinez and Vigil beat Juanito and stuff his body into a vehicle. Martinez regained consciousness, tried to escape, and was shot, according to the arrest warrant for the two men.
The witness later recanted his story. Villa said the investigator knew about this but filed applications for arrest warrants anyway. Vigil’s criminal defense lawyer, Ben Ortega, said Assistant District Attorney Benjamin Schrope, who initially prosecuted the case, also knew the witness had recanted. Joe Martinez was arrested and charged with first-degree murder in June 2016 and Vigil was arrested on the same charge a few months later.
“I was terrified,” Vigil said. “I was fearing for my life. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in prison for something I didn’t do. It was so stressful. I knew the truth would come out eventually, because I knew I didn’t do it. But then you are thinking, ‘What if we go to trial and they convict me like they did at grand jury?’” Vigil added he did know Juanito Martinez and had partied with him, but he was headed to Albuquerque when Juanito was killed.
In July 2017, the District Attorney’s Office dismissed the charges against the two men, but Joe Martinez had already spent a year in jail and Vigil had been imprisoned for eight months. Villa filed the civil complaint against New Mexico State Police on behalf of the two defendants.
District Attorney’s Office spokesperson Henry Varela said, “At the time the DA’s office knew that [the witness] did not want to testify against Martinez and Vigil and that he was not cooperative with prosecution. As the ADA prepared the case for trial, it became evident that the prosecution could not overcome legal issues and prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. Rather than risk acquittal, we decided it was best to dismiss the case pending additional investigation. It is tragic that years later, the DA’s office still does not have the evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt who killed Juanito, and that his killer walks free.”