Owens’ defense assails police as murder trial goes to jury

March 31, 2019

Defense attorney Lisa A. Torraco attacked the work of the Santa Fe Police Department during her closing argument Friday in the Christopher Owens’ murder trial.

The department’s investigators failed to collect important evidence at the scene of the June 17, 2017, shooting that killed Tim Baca, she said, and the evidence they did gather wasn’t handled properly.

“The processing system and the collection of evidence at the Santa Fe Police Department is very low integrity,” she said. “They have done a terrible job collecting evidence. … They are sloppy. They are careless.

“You don’t do sloppy work and think you can put someone on trial for first-degree murder,” she continued.

Among her arguments: Investigators didn’t check the dumpsters at the apartment complex on Santa Fe’s northwest side where Baca was shot in the chest and died in the parking lot. They didn’t run tests on Baca’s clothes to see if he might have fired a weapon before being killed. They didn’t test eyewitnesses for drug use. They didn’t submit into evidence lapel camera recordings from every officer at the scene. They didn’t introduce evidence about whether Owens was left- or right-handed.

He is left-handed, Torraco said of her client, who did not take the stand; witnesses said Owens fired a gun with his right hand.

During her hour-and-a-half closing remarks in the nine-day trial, Torraco said the police department decided early on that her client had shot Baca and then built its case around that assumption.

“They arrested Chris right away, and they decided right away he was guilty,” she said. “And they only take the facts that support their conclusions. They don’t take facts that support any other theory.”

Owens, 32, is accused of shooting, Baca, 30, around 3:30 a.m. after the pair — who had first met hours earlier — partied with mutual friends at a nightclub in Santa Fe and at Buffalo Thunder Resort & Casino north of the city.

According to evidence presented at Owens’ trial, the two men and four other people — Baca’s wife, LaPearl Baca; a 16-year-old cousin; his wife’s friend, Laray Montano; and Owens’ friend, Juan Elias Torres — were on their way back from the casino when the two men began to exchange words inside a crowded Camaro.

The fight broke out, LaPearl Baca said on the stand Thursday, because Owens and Torres had been singing along to a song on the radio and her husband, being a jokester, had joshed them about getting together to practice it at night.

Owens took the joke personally, LaPearl Baca said, and began threatening to shoot her husband, and then threatened to shoot them all.

When Torres — who was driving the Camaro — pulled over, several witnesses said, they all got out of the car, and Owens made good on his threats — feigning as if he intended to shake Timothy Baca’s hand before shooting him in the chest.

Owens fled the scene on foot but was arrested and charged with Baca’s murder the next morning.

Nobody who testified during his trial could remember the name of the song the two men reportedly had been singing, which Torraco suggested to jurors indicated a cover-up or collusion of some kind by the eyewitnesses.

But prosecutor Blake Nichols said during his rebuttal that neither the forgotten song title nor any of the other loose threads Torraco had tugged at during her closing arguments were important when it came to determining Owens’ guilt.

“Everybody remembers that last few seconds where this guy shoots Tim Baca,” Nichols said, pointing at Owens.

The state presented evidence for almost nine full days in the nearly two weeks leading up to Friday’s closing arguments.

Owens’ defense team presented one witness Friday: a man who had lived near the apartment complex at the time of the shooting and called 911 after hearing the first of two shots.

A second shot could be heard in the background on the recording of his 911 call.

The man said he heard male voices arguing, one deeper than the other, and women crying and screaming. The deeper male voice continued after the first shot, he said.

Torraco told jurors Owens did not have a deep voice and said the man’s testimony was evidence Baca had been alive after the first shot — indeed, she said, he might have fired the first shot himself, prompting someone to shoot him back in self-defense.

By the time the jurors — eight women and four men, the majority of whom were white and middle-aged or older — had heard the last piece of evidence and the last lawyer’s argument, it was just past 7 p.m. Friday.

After selecting a foreman, they elected to return to court Monday morning to begin their deliberations in the case.