Eagle County jury at stalemate in El Jebel murder case after day one of deliberations
The 12-person jury in the El Jebel double-murder trial was unable to reach a verdict Thursday.
The jury started deliberating at 12:50 p.m. and recessed for the night eight hours later. Jurors will try again today to reach a conclusion.
The prosecution and defense made their closing arguments Thursday morning.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Joe Kirwan told the jury that this was an unusual case because they weren’t being asked to determine whether Williams Amaya killed his aunt and uncle, Mayra and Eliseo Lopez, on July 12, 2014. Amaya isn’t disputing that he pulled the trigger. He pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.
The jury’s duty was to weigh nine days of testimony and determine if Amaya knew right from wrong, and whether he was culpable for the crime.
Public defender Thea Reiff insisted in her closing argument that Amaya’s action July 12 “was a product of a mind so broke and delusional” from a biochemical disintegration. It wasn’t something he could control, she stressed, just as some people are genetically predisposed to diabetes or born with brain damage.
She said testimony from three mental health experts who evaluated him showed Amaya thought he was saving the world from the forces of evil.
“He thought what he was doing was right, not wrong,” she said.
Reiff reminded the jury that Amaya’s delusions repeated certain themes — possession by Lucifer, celebrity relatives, delusions of grandeur and false background, and threats to his life, his family’s life and to the world.
Testimony showed Amaya claimed at various times that he was Lucifer or Lucifer’s son. He claimed kinship with Hillary Clinton, Kim Kardashian and John McCain.
Amaya told investigators with the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office that he shot the Lopezes because he thought they were possessed and were forces of evil out to harm the world.
“He had to act to save the world” in his mind, Reiff said.
She later added: “He thought he was right. He thought he was just.”
Kirwan hammered the point in his closing argument that what Amaya did was “horrible” and almost beyond belief. When people hear about senseless killings, they often ask themselves, “That guy most be crazy. Who would do that?”
But the jury’s role is to apply “common sense,” he said. Kirwan said there were no reported psychotic episodes by Amaya between March 2012, when he allegedly assaulted his then-wife, and July 2014. If Amaya was schizophrenic, Kirwan said, there would have been more reports of bizarre behavior.
“It doesn’t stay under wraps for more than two years,” he said.
Co-workers and bosses at a pool and spa business in the Roaring Fork Valley reported no bizarre behavior. Amaya was a top employee who passed tests and used algebra to calculate the proper amount of chemicals to add to pools, Kirwan noted.
Kirwan said examining Amaya’s actions the day of the murders shows he planned his actions carefully. He laid out this sequence of events: Amaya left the Lopez house, where he rented a room, and grabbed a cup of coffee from Starbucks at Willits. He got his oil changed at Big O Tires in Basalt and then drove to Carbondale for breakfast at the Red Rock Diner. He drove to Grand Junction to Cabela’s and purchased a .380 handgun, waiting for about an hour for assistance from a sales clerk and a background check, which he passed. After acquiring the gun and ammunition, he went to Olive Garden in Grand Junction for lunch, “the seafood special.”
“No Lucifer, no devil. He didn’t encounter any of them between Cabela’s and Olive Garden,” Kirwan said.
He was relaxed enough that he purchased some frozen yogurt after driving back to Basalt, and then arrived back at his house at 5 p.m. and “waits for the right time.”
He shot both Eliseo and Mayra four times. They died at the house. He fired additional bullets into the beds of the two boys, thinking they were asleep. Kirwan claimed he wanted to “eliminate witnesses.”
The prosecutor didn’t have to prove a motive since Amaya admitted to slaying the Lopezes, but all observers want to know why he did it, according to Kirwan. He noted that Amaya was paying $600 per month for a bedroom that didn’t even have its own bathroom. He told a friend at work that the Lopezes’ dog annoyed him. He wasn’t able to drive his work truck home because of lack of parking. The implication was Amaya was frustrated with his life.
“He was sane,” Kirwan said.
Reiff criticized Kirwan’s interpretation of events as “almost cartoonish.” A person doesn’t have to be “stark, raving mad” every day to be suffering from mental illness, she said.
Reiff told the jury before deliberations that it was understandable that they feel sympathy for the Lopez family, including their two teenage boys. The boys were in the house at the time of the shooting. They fled and escaped injury and are now living with family in Aspen.
The shooting was a tragedy, Reiff said. “Your verdict here can’t undo that.”
Pitkin County sheriff-elect Michael Buglione on Wednesday credited his election victory to grassroots campaigning, hard work, and handshakes.