By Robin Fornoff
CMI PROJECTS EDITOR
Jurors took less than an hour Friday to convict Enrique Deleon of the first-degree murders of his next door neighbors, Clovis couple Joe Valero, 44, and Lupita Casteneda, 25.
Deleon faces mandatory life in prison on both convictions, plus another eight years for two counts of child abuse, charges stemming from gunning down the couple in the presence of their children.
Curry County District Judge Teddy Hartley granted Public Defender Chandler Blair’s immediate request to postpone sentencing at least 60 days to allow diagnostic testing. Hartley, however, said testing has rarely helped him in sentencing and he had no choice but to order life in prison for each of the two murder convictions.
The only issue is the length of sentencing time on child abuse and whether Hartley will order the life sentences consecutive or concurrent. District Attorney Matt Chandler said he plans to ask that all sentences be served consecutively, assuring Deleon, 27, will never leave prison alive.
Deleon was accused of gunning down the couple in September 2011 after a fight at what witnesses described as an all-day backyard barbecue and drinking party at their home near 10th and Prince streets..
Witnesses said sometime after the couple invited Deleon to join the party, he began pestering Valero and his brother Frank Valero about gangs. Deleon was asked to leave and when he didn’t, Joe Valero punched him in the face, according to testimony during the five-day trail. Frank Valero joined the scuffle, witnesses said, and Deleon went home, returning about 15 minutes later to open fire with a .45 caliber handgun.
A pathologist said Joe Valero was hit three times and died almost instantly when one of the bullets severed his aorta. Casteneda died from a single wound to the abdomen after being flown to a Lubbock hospital.
Jurors were given several options. In his final instructions, Hartley told jurors if they couldn’t agree on first-degree murder, they must also consider second-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter in the killing of Valero. For Casteneda, Hartley limited the options to first and second-degree murder.
During closing arguments, Chandler told jurors one of the differences between second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter was provocation. He said had there been a gun on the table during the fight and Deleon grabbed it and fired, he might be guilty of second-degree murder. Because he went home and returned after a 15- to 20-minute cooling-off period, Chandler argued, Deleon should be found guilty of nothing less than first-degree murder.
Chandler reminded jurors that Deleon’s longtime girlfriend Shawna Perry testified she got on her knees and begged him not to go back as he was opening a gun safe in their bedroom. He told her he was over it, said Chandler.
Chandler noted that Perry’s 11-year-old son Malachi testified he, too, begged Deleon not to go outside with the gun. Malachi said Deleon sat down on the floor with him and assured him everything was OK, that he was just going to try and find out why Valero hit him.
During his closing statements, Blair characterized Deleon’s return as an attempt to patch things up with his next door neighbors. He also argued that there were numerous contradictions in eyewitness testimony and police only took two blood swabs for testing from the crime scene.
“A whole lot of blood,” said Blair. “Two dead bodies and only two swabs?”
On closing rebuttal, Chandler told jurors, “You don’t walk up to someone to apologize with a gun. Unless you’re trying to lure in your prey.”
Jurors left the courtroom to begin deliberations about 4:25 p.m. and notified bailiffs they had reached a decision shortly before 5:25 p.m.
Chandler told jurors Deleon just couldn’t let go of the fight, during which he suffered about a three-inch gash on the back of his head.
Chandler said Deleon walked about to a rickety wooden picket fence as Valero and Casteneda were strapping their children in their car to leave the home and let the situation cool off.
Deleon racked the automatic handgun once to ensure there was a bullet in the chamber, Chandler said, then opened fire. He finished, Chandler said, what he returned to do.
“In New Mexico,” Chandler told jurors, “that’s willful and deliberate murder.”