By Sharna Johnson: Freedom New Mexico
Brandon Barela’s facial expression didn’t change as the guilty verdict was read Thursday afternoon.
After less than two hours of deliberations, a Curry County jury found the 25-year-old guilty of first-degree murder, kidnapping, armed robbery and two counts of tampering with evidence.
He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison plus 33 years.
“Justice was served,” said a tearful Sarah Hittson, the victim’s sister-in-law, after the verdict was read.
During closing arguments, Barela’s defense team conceded that Barela was involved in the April beating death of 51-year-old Tucumcari truck driver Ron Hittson.
“I’m not going to insult your intelligence. A man is dead, and clearly Mr. Barela was involved in that,” defense attorney Chandler Blair told jurors in his closing arguments. “What we had here was a rash killing … There’s no plan, this was just something that went horribly, horribly wrong.”
Blair characterized the killing as a spur-of-the-moment incident that got out of control for Barela, who had been drinking all night.
Asking jurors to view the murder as a second-degree or lesser killing, Blair blamed alcohol for what took place the night Hittson was killed.
“He was just terrified. He only did what he did because he was so scared,” Blair said.
“They consumed a lot of alcohol in a very short period of time. It’s not preplanning, it’s more like a post-panic.”
In his closing arguments, Blair didn’t elaborate on what Barela allegedly feared.
In his rebuttal arguments, District Attorney Matt Chandler reiterated to jurors that Barela had staged attempts to set up a drug deal for Hittson’s benefit after he saw the 51-year-old was carrying a large wad of cash.
Laughing, Chandler told jurors, “That’s a first, to have a defense attorney stand up and admit that their client was involved.”
“(Barela) knew exactly what he was doing. He was killing a man for his money, and he left him there … This was cold-blooded murder,” he said passionately, showing jurors the concrete block used to beat Hittson to death.
“Ladies and gentleman, this is a day of accounting.”
The state’s case hinged on eyewitness testimony, along with blood and DNA evidence. Chandler related the eyewitness testimony during his closing argument.
Chandler said the eyewitness, Manuel Vargas, testified he and Barela met Hittson at a local bar and after being asked to leave a second bar, went out driving, telling Hittson they were going to buy marijuana.
Vargas told the court that Hittson asked to be let out of the truck after he disagreed with Barela about the price he was quoted for the drugs, and Barela followed him, hitting him in the back of the head with a concrete block from the bed of the pickup, the district attorney said.
Vargas also told jurors he watched as Barela stood over the fallen Hittson and repeatedly struck him in the face with the block. When Vargas requested Barela stop, Chandler said, Barela said he had to finish Hittson.
Hittson’s body was found at the intersection of N.M. 523 and Sugarbeet Road by a passing motorist a few hours later.
Barela will be sent for a 60-day diagnostic evaluation prior to sentencing.