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Man sentenced to 22+ years following emotional hearing


A Las Cruces man received the maximum sentence for a 2020 death during an emotional hearing on June 28.

Jeremiah Peña-Nieto, 21, was sentenced to 22 years and six months in prison after a jury found him guilty of killing Jacob Daniel Becerra, 18, in 2020. Peña-Nieto was 17 when he killed Becerra, just 29 days away from being a legal adult.

A jury in April convicted Peña-Nieto of two counts of tampering with evidence, one count of conspiracy to commit tampering with evidence and one count of second-degree murder.

During the hour-long hearing, the defendant did not plead for leniency. Instead, he apologized a dozen times and told the victim’s family he had come to understand what he’d taken from them. Yet the wounds of violent loss remained acutely felt by the family, who asked the judge for a maximum sentence.

But perhaps the most damming testimony came from Peña-Nieto’s grandmother and Becerra’s brother, who told the court how systems around Peña-Nieto and Becerra failed them.

“This is a harsh sentence,” 3rd Judicial District Judge Conrad Perea said before issuing his ruling. “And it breaks my heart to do this.”

The case against Pe

According to court records, police discovered Becerra in a 2018 Kia Forte crashed into a light pole on E. Farney Lane near W. Park Drive. Further examination revealed Becerra had been shot multiple times. Later, his family said they were denied the opportunity to see Becerra for a time because of the damage done to his body.

Peña-Nieto was arrested for the murder and initially held in jail for two years. In May 2022, Peña-Nieto was put on trial for the first time to no avail: The trial ended in a mistrial after questions arose when prosecutors were unable to produce a toxicology report. At the time, the district attorney’s office said they never received the report from the Las Cruces Police Department. 

Peña-Nieto was then released from jail. Two years later, a jury found Peña-Nieto guilty of the shooting, and he was remanded back to the Doña Ana County Detention Center.

17 years old

Peña-Nieto was 17, less than a month away from his 18th birthday when he killed Becerra.

And since the jury found him guilty of second-degree murder, there was a question about what protections against over-punishing youthful offenders Peña-Nieto was entitled to. Judge Perea noted that if Peña-Nieto had been convicted of first-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter, the law was clear on how to proceed; but not for second-degree murder.

Peña-Nieto’s lawyer, Jeffrey Lahann, acknowledged that his client was in a challenging spot. Lahann noted that there was no program into which Peña-Nieto could be transferred. If he were younger, Peña-Nieto could be placed into programs administered by the Children, Youth, and Families Department. But now, he’s aged out of such programs.

“I think these laws should still mean something, even if there are no programs to support them,” Lahann said.  

It did, however, stop Perea from allowing Peña-Nieto to receive the lighter hand of the law as a child. Perea noted that Peña-Nieto would’ve been ineligible for any CYFD programs a month after the crime occurred anyway.  He also stated that Peña-Nieto showed some awareness of the consequence of his actions when he posted photos on social media of himself flashing guns.

Those two factors contributed to Perea’s ruling and allowed Peña-Nieto to be sentenced as an adult.

22.5 years, eternal sorrow

Two of Becerra’s uncles described Becerra as a vibrant young man with a bright future ahead of him. They said he loved music, basketball and shoes. After graduating from Las Cruces High School months before his death, Becerra was looking into college. He wanted to study architecture and was preparing to meet with a community college advisor – a meeting he never got to make.

While Becerra may have looked intimidating as a big man at an early age, his uncles said he had a soft soul, like that of a teddy bear.

Becerra’s mother testified that Becerra loved nothing more than entertaining those around him. On the last day of his life, Becerra delighted his mother’s work team when he appeared on a Zoom call. By 5:30 p.m. that same day, a Las Cruces detective informed her that Becerra had been shot to death.

“There truly are no words to describe the level of devastation we've felt each and every moment since that day,” the mother said, describing how she and Becerra’s father have suffered from fear and depression in the years since Becerra’s death.

Becerra’s brother also testified. He reiterated Becerra's loving and gentle soul, yet strayed from his family’s words and took issue with the systems surrounding Becerra.

“I remember the impersonal feeling of being another case on the desk with some prosecutor for who-knows-where Texas, the gamification of our justice system, by what I can only describe as an unscrupulous defense attorney motivated only by money who slandered the good name of my deceased brother,” Becerra said. “I remember the lack of impartiality from the first judge; I remember how she used her seat to stop my mother from exercising her First Amendment rights. But after all this, we're sitting here today with this whole process almost behind us.”

Becerra’s brother went on to say that he initially did not care what the court decided to do with a guilty Peña-Nieto. His brother was dead, and that’s all that mattered, he said.

“What I believe is that if you live long enough, you cannot outrun your conscience. So, when (Peña-Nieto) has to walk free, whether tomorrow or in old age, he will have to live out the hell that he has created for himself,” the brother said.

Yet, he said his perspective changed as he placed his brother’s death in another context.  He said he felt that society in the U.S. and Las Cruces had degraded to the point that men specifically were placed into positions where they were disaffected and led to crime.

“Jacob (Becerra) was disaffected himself. But he was also someone with a big heart and a strong conscience. He cared for the poor, for the homeless. He found purpose in giving back, and he was a valuable member of our community whose impact could not fully materialize due to the cold-blooded murder carried out by Jeremiah Peña-Nieto,” he said.

‘I feel the system failed him.’

Peña-Nieto was brief and to the point in his allocution.

“I am so sorry for the pain that I’ve put on you,” Peña-Nieto said, pausing occasionally to stop himself from crying. “I think about it every day of my life.”

He said his actions haunt him, he’s no t proud of them and that he mishandled the situation.

“It was wrong. It was evil,” Peña-Nieto said. “I imagine if it was my daughter (who was killed,) and I’m terribly, terribly sorry. All I know is that, no matter what happens here today, I owe you guys (Becerra’s family), I owe you the world.”

Peña-Nieto’s grandmother also spoke out to the court.

She provided some background on Peña-Nieto’s life. He was born to two parents who were just 17 years old. His dad wasn’t around. And when she and his mother sought to find Peña-Nieto help as he became more involved with guns and violence, no support was found.

“I feel that the system failed him,” she said. “I just feel that, when he was 17 or before that, if he would’ve gotten, if just a few circumstances were different – he’s not a bad person. And, I’m so sorry for the family.”

She said Peña-Nieto became a father the same year he killed Becerra.

“It just goes on. The system, it creates another child without a father,” she said.

sentencing, Jeremiah Peña-Nieto, killing, Jacob Daniel Becerra