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Conviction reinstated over 2017 murder in Hachita


The New Mexico Supreme Court on Monday reinstated a second-degree murder conviction for a man convicted of strangling a Florida woman to death by a roadside in Hachita in 2017.

Isaias Lobato-Rodriguez, 60, was charged with first-degree murder in the death of Connie Lopez, but a Grant County jury convicted him of second-degree murder instead in 2020. He was sentenced by District Judge Jarod Hofacket to the maximum prison sentence of 15 years, with credit for more than three and a half years Lobato-Rodriguez had been incarcerated before trial.

The defendant appealed his conviction and in 2022, the New Mexico Court of Appeals found that a comment by prosecutor Matthew Bradburn, at the opening of the trial, that the defendant had asserted his right to remain silent after being arrested. The appeals court found that the comment may have, in the words of the appeal motion, “tainted the jury’s view of the evidence from the very outset of trial in a way that could not be undone.” Lobato-Rodriguez’s defense attorney, George Harrison, moved for a mistrial at the time but was denied. The appeals court vacated the conviction and ordered a new trial.

The Supreme Court, however, found in a unanimous decision that, while the prosecutor’s comment was in error, it did not call for a reversal of Lobato-Rodriguez’s conviction.

In an opinion authored by Justice Briana Zamora, the panel ruled: “While we agree that the prosecutor’s comment violated Defendant’s constitutional rights, we conclude that the error was harmless in the context of the trial as a whole.”

Lobato-Rodriguez was a Mexican national and agricultural worker in Florida who was traveling with Lopez, a paralegal from Lake Placid, Fla., across the southern U.S. headed to lived with a relative in the Mexican state of Sonora. She was found by Border Patrol agents at the side of Highway 9 east of Hachita, inside the minivan in which they had been traveling, in the driver’s seat with a belt wrapped around her neck. Lobato-Rodriguez reportedly approached the agents and admitted to strangling Lopez, who was 57 years old, claiming she was planning to kill him and his daughter. At issue in the case was whether he had been provoked to a degree that he would be guilty of voluntary manslaughter rather than second-degree murder. The appeal argued that the comment by Bradburn had prejudiced the jury, but the Supreme Court rejected that argument, concluding that Lobato-Rodriguz’s defense “could not establish sufficient provocation as a matter of law,” regardless of the comment.

The panel also noted that the defendant had spoken to police before invoking his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent, and that the initial statements he made “were consistent with his trial testimony.”

The decision returns the case to the Court of Appeals, as Lobato-Rodriguez had also appealed his conviction on other grounds.

Isaias Lobato-Rodriguez, convicted, murder