CLOVIS — Criminal charges against a Clovis police officer involved in a fatal vehicle accident in 2010 were dropped Friday.
Attorney Dan Lindsey said Judge Teddy Hartley dropped charges after ruling interference in grand jury deliberations.
Officer Stephen Gallegos, no longer with the Clovis Police Department, was indicted in January 2011 on charges of vehicular homicide and causing great bodily injury. The charges stemmed from a November 2010 accident in which investigators said Gallegos ran a stop sign in his police cruiser and crashed into a vehicle.
Mary Castillo, the passenger in the other vehicle, was killed, while driver Edith Payton was seriously injured.
Last month, defense attorney Lindsey asked Judge Hartley to dismiss charges against Gallegos on grounds 9th Judicial District Attorney Matt Chandler interfered with grand jury deliberations.
Lindsey said the jury originally submitted a verdict of "no probable cause" on the vehicular homicide charge, but changed the verdict after Chandler — who has since removed his office from prosecution of the case — spoke with the jury about deliberations.
"The grand jury laws in New Mexico have been clear for decades," Lindsey said on Friday night. "You don't ask them how they vote, ever. It opens up the possibility of grand jury abuse. When you know how grand juries vote, you can remove them from the next panel. That's why the rule's there."
Chandler said he does not believe he did anything wrong during the grand jury proceedings, but said the case was unique.
"I have never had grand jurors argue in front of me," Chandler said on Friday night. When they began to debate the case in front of him, Chandler said he asked them to return to deliberations.
"I don't believe we did anything malicious," he said.
Hartley declined to talk about the case, but wrote in his ruling:
"DA Chandler advises (the grand jury) that he does not want to intrude on their deliberations, stating with regard to Count I no probable cause and Count II probable cause that 'Well it, I'll just have to accept it as it is so…'"
Hartley goes on to say: "DA Chandler then disregards his own advice and proceeds to impermissibly ask and answer questions.
"DA Chandler should have accepted their findings and concluded the grand jury. The questions asked by DA Chandler, the further reading of instructions, the second round of deliberations, and the polling of the grand jury, etc., are acts of DA Chandler which constitute improper influence, or at least the opportunity for improper influence."
Chandler said the 10th Judicial District — which is now handling the case — will decide what happens next since the case was moved on a change of venue.
Lindsey said he didn't feel Chandler intended to tamper with the jury, but any mistake in the court system is to be borne by the government and not a citizen who has the presumption of innocence.
"I'm sure it was an honest mistake," Lindsey said, "but the end result was they found a no bill … and went back in with a finding of probable cause."