Cop-killer Astorga faces death sentence
Convicted Friday of all charges
ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) - A District Court jury Friday convicted Michael Astorga of first-degree murder and all other charges in the shooting death of Bernalillo County sheriff's Deputy James McGrane Jr.
District Judge Neil Candelaria read the verdict shortly after 2:30 p.m.
Both prosecutors and the defense said jurors had problems with the defense's alibi witnesses who came forward year's after the crime.
"You can round up all the people you want to lie, but at the end of the day, [the jury] understood what happened and we got justice for Jimmy. That's what matters most to us," former sheriff Darren White said.
"[Astorga] was really disturbed by it. But as he said to me 'You know Gary, from day one I told you I was innocent, I'm still innocent. I don't care what they say. If they want to kill me for it then I guess that's just the way life is,'" defense attorney Gary Mitchell said.
Jury selection began May 3 for Astorga. He was charged with first-degree murder and other crimes related to McGrane's death. The Bernalillo County deputy was gunned down during a traffic stop in Tijeras at 1:44 a.m. on March 22, 2006.
During the trial prosecutors charged Astorga shot the deputy to avoid arrest on an outstanding warrant for the murder of Candido Martinez. Astorga was arrested about two weeks later when Mexican police captured him in Juarez.
During the trial defense attorney Gary Mitchell presented alibi witnesses who testified they were with Astorga in Albuquerque at the time McGrane was shot. Mitchell also argued that there was neither eyewitness testimony nor physical evidence tying Astorga to the crime scene.
Astorga himself took the stand testifying he was shocked to learn he was a suspect in the shooting and that he ran because he feared vengeful police would kill him. His estranged wife testified she initially lied to police about when she last saw Astorga out of fear and threats from investigators.
A federal appeals court had earlier ruled sheriff's investigators engaged in an unconstitution search of Astorga's in-law's home two days after the killing when they used unsupported assumptions to obtain a search warrant.
Sheriff's investigators had seized Astorga's pickup truck from his East Mountain home about 20 miles south of the shooting scene. Prosecution witnesses testified it was that pickup truck McGrane stopped for not having a light over its license plate.
Testimony also indicated McGrane was shot in the chin at close range and in a location where it blood spatter and other evidence would not have reached the truck.
Because New Mexico had not yet repealed its death penalty, Astorga faces possible execution for killing a law-enforcement officer. A new jury now will be seated and a mini-trial conducted to determining whether he receives a death sentence or life in prison.
The trial got off to a rough start as jury selection took two weeks interrupted first by whether or not prospective jurors should be told Astorga faced possible execution if convicted of first-degree murder. The prosecutors questioned whether state law required a second defense attorney be present at all times during the trial, a question that took the state Supreme Court to decide in the negative.
The jury comprised seven women and five men; four of the 12 were Hispanic. Four alternate jurors were dismissed when testimony end.
Testimony began on May 17, and the jury began its deliberations on Wednesday afternoon working through Thursday and much of Friday before reaching its decision. Astorga also was convicted of two counts of tampering with evidence--moving his truck and disposing of the murder weapon, which was never found--plus a count of being a felon in possession of a firearm.
McGrane was killed by a single shot from a 10 mm pistol. An East Mountain store owner testified Astorga, whom he knew by a different name, had shown him a 10 mm Glock during a visit to the store.
A security camera recorded Astorga at the store but did not show him revealing the pistol.
Only one inmate has been executed in New Mexico since 1960. Terry Clark was executed by lethal injection in 2001 for murdering 9-year-old Dena Lynn Gore of Artesia.
That execution came on after Clark dropped his appeals and asked to be executed.
In 2009 the New Mexico Legislature repealed the state death penalty substituting life in prison without parole in a bill signed by Gov. Bill Richardson. The repeal took effect on July 1 more than a year after Astorga killed McGrane.
Richardson later said he supported death sentences for the most heinous crimes such as the McGrane murder.http://www.krqe.com/dpp/news/crime/jurors-said-to-reach-astorga-verdict