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Benny Martinez

Other New Mexico Exonerations
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At about 10 p.m. on May 31, 1998, 27-year old Elmo “Primo” Rodgers was fatally shot at 1809 Thomason Road in Carlsbad, New Mexico.

Police were called by Rodgers’s wife, Rachel Martinez, who said that 42-year-old Benny Martinez shot Rodgers after he went to Benny’s home to sell some statues—the sort of which are commonly used as garden or lawn decorations.

Police recovered eight .22-caliber shell casings outside the home, but no gun was found.

Benny Martinez was arrested the following day and charged with second-degree murder.

He went to trial on December 9, 1998, in Eddy County District Court. Rachel Martinez, who was no relation to Benny Martinez, testified she and Rodgers drove to Martinez’s home and she stayed in the car with her baby while Rodgers went inside. She told the jury that shortly after, she heard noises that sounded like people fighting and then saw Rodgers run from the house, chased by Benny Martinez.

Rachel Martinez testified that Benny, who had long gray hair tied in a ponytail, chased Rodgers and fired several shots from a handgun. She said she sped away and stopped at a nearby house to call police. She returned as police were arriving and found Rodgers on the ground with two bullet wounds.

Eddy County Sheriff’s Detective James Ballard testified that a second car, a white Crown Victoria, had been at the house, but based upon his examination of tire tracks, that car left the murder scene after Rachel Martinez left to call the police. Additionally, Ballard said, a black 1987 Chevy Blazer was also parked at the house.

According to Ballard, the Blazer was registered to Michael Carrasco, the defense attorney for Benny Martinez. The Crown Victoria was registered to Carrasco’s law firm and was primarily driven by Manuel Girdley, an investigator for Carrasco.

After the prosecution finished presenting its evidence and the jury was at lunch, the trial judge expressed concern about whether it was appropriate for Carrasco to represent Martinez given that Carrasco’s car and another car associated with his law firm were at the murder scene. The judge said he believed the jury might infer that because the Crown Victoria left after the shooting but before police arrived, the murder weapon was removed from the scene by the person in the Crown Victoria, Carrasco’s investigator Girdley.

Carrasco denied he was present at the house on the day of the murder. He said that he and Benny were partners in a bar and grill, and that Benny used the Blazer as part of their business.

The judge pointed out that if Girdley was present during the shooting, there was an “insurmountable” conflict of interest. The judge asked Benny, “You heard about all the discomfort I have with this case. Now, do you want Mr. Carrasco to continue to represent you?”

“Yes, I do,” Martinez replied. “I waited for seven months for this. And I lost a whole lot, and I want to get this over with. Okay? If you will put yourself in my shoes, you know this has been a bad rap, and I just want to get this over with.”

When the trial resumed, Benny Martinez testified and denied shooting Rodgers. Martinez said that Rodgers left the house and he remained inside. He then heard the sound of gunfire and screeching tires. He told the jury that he then ran just outside the door and saw Rodgers running and some dark shadows, but never saw anyone shoot him.

On December 11, 1998, the jury convicted Martinez of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

In June 2001, the Court of Appeals of New Mexico reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial. The appeals court said the conflict of interest was too glaring to allow the conviction to stand. “The involvement of defense counsel’s law firm, the negative inferences thereby created, and the corresponding need for defense counsel to look after his own interests during the trial, all combined to present an actual conflict of interest, a conflict the trial judge kindly referred to…as ‘this stinking dead fish.’”

“In this case, there was overwhelming evidence that someone left Benny’s home after the murder driving a white car,” the appeals court said, noting that the failure to call Girdley as a witness was a “glaring” mistake by Carrasco.

“Had defense counsel persuaded (Benny) not to testify, he could have easily implicated the driver of the white car in the killing, which would have incorporated the prosecution’s tire track evidence and provided the jury with a plausible theory of who the murderer was and how the murder weapon disappeared,” the appeals court said. But Carrasco did not pursue that defense because it would “by necessity, implicate Girdley,” who was Carrasco’s employee.

Benny Martinez went to trial a second time in December 2001. By that time, Carrasco and Benny Martinez’s brother, Thomas Martinez, Jr., had been indicted on charges that at the time of the murder they were operating a cocaine distribution conspiracy that laundered its profits through a business called South of the Border, which was located just across the U.S. border in Mexico. Both were ultimately convicted and sentenced to prison.

South of the Border sold statues and, according to evidence presented at the retrial, the statues that Rodgers brought to Martinez’s home not only had been stolen from that business, but still had the South of the Border stickers on them.

The defense presented evidence that Benny and his brother closely resembled one another, and that the gunman had been Thomas Martinez, who was angry that Rodgers was attempting to sell him statutes that had been stolen from his business. Benny again testified and said his brother was the gunman.

By that time, Girdley had been murdered so he could not be called to testify. However, before he died, he had disclosed in an interview that he had in fact disposed of the murder weapon.

On December 12, 2001, the jury acquitted Martinez and he was released.

– Maurice Possley and Jorge Ponce

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Posting Date: 2/28/2017
State:New Mexico
County:Eddy
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1998
Convicted:1998
Exonerated:2001
Sentence:20 years
Race:Hispanic
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:42
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No