By Karl Terry: PNT Managing Editor
A Roosevelt County jury returned a verdict of guilty of second-degree murder Wednesday in the 2004 death of a 19-year-old Portales woman.
Richard Baca, 20, was accused of beating Amber Robinson of Portales unconscious in the kitchen of the Baca home and burying her alive in the back yard following a night of drinking.
The prosecution had argued for a first-degree murder conviction.
“We wanted to give Amber a day in court,” District Attorney Matt Chandler said. “We exercise the criminal justice system the best we can and respect the jury’s verdict.”
Jury instructions given by Judge Stephen Quinn allowed for a verdict of second-degree murder.
Chandler said he plans to seek the maximum sentence of 28 years.
Family members of the victim and defendant declined comment.
Richard Baca’s brother, Clifford “Bubba” Baca, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in March of 2006 for his part in the crime.
In her closing arguments, defense attorney Anna Aragon of Las Vegas, N.M., pointed out Baca was only 17 at the time and had little education because of a learning disability.
“This is not, ladies and gentlemen, the action of first-degree murder. This is the action of a scared, intoxicated 17-year-old,” Aragon said.
She also pointed out the defendant thought Robinson was dead when he buried her.
She told the jury the worst verdict they should return was second-degree murder.
The defense called one witness during the trial, made no opening statement, and only briefly cross-examined most of the state’s witnesses.
“The burden of proof is always on the state to prove the crime,” Aragon said following the trial. “In many instances my strategy is to do very little in court other than poke holes in the state’s case.”
In his closing arguments, Chandler reviewed the state’s evidence with a slide presentation and said the defendant knew Robinson was still alive because he knew she was still bleeding.
“And then he carries her through his junk-infested back yard and places her in the grave,” Chandler told the jury.
The jury also found Richard Baca guilty of two counts of tampering with evidence.
A sentencing hearing will be set at a later date.
Wednesday’s testimony highlights
• Debra Komar, a forensic anthropologist for the state, testified about how Robinson’s body was situated and the grave varied from 11 inches deep at the head to 40 inches at the foot. She also testified to items found in the grave with the body, including a tire iron.
• Dr. Ross Zumwalt, a forensic pathologist from the Office of the Medical Investigator, gave testimony on the autopsy performed on Robinson’s body. It showed her jaw had been dislocated, and she had sustained an injury that flattened her nose.
He also testified he found dirt in the trachea (windpipe) down below the voice box, which he said likely meant she was alive when she was buried. He said the extent of any injuries she might have received were hard to determine because of decomposition of the body.
• Dr. Ljubisa Dragovic, a forensic pathologist from the medical examiners office in Oakland County, Mich., testified judging by photos of Robinson’s body he reviewed he believed the victim was alive when she was buried and the cause of death was suffocation. He said she was most likely unconscious when she was buried because she did not swallow any dirt.
• Defense attorney Anna Aragon attacked Dragovic’s testimony on cross-examination, saying he hadn’t examined the body himself and had only looked at photos and autopsy reports to come up with his opinion. She also questioned him about whether an untrained, intoxicated, scared 17-year-old could have detected signs of life in Robinson. Dragovic conceded that would create more ambiguity and make it more difficult.
• Clifford Baca Sr., Richard’s father, testified as the only defense witness. He said he convinced Richard to return to Portales from Albuquerque and on the trip back he learned his son had killed Robinson. He said he became mad during the trip, stopped the car and admitted he hit Richard.