On June 19, 1999, 21-year-old Ricky Solis got into an argument with his girlfriend while they were on the telephone and she was at a party at the apartment of 18-year-old Charles McClaugherty in Albuquerque, New Mexico. After McClaugherty and Rodrigo Dominguez got on the phone and exchanged words with Solis, they agreed to meet nearby and fight.
Dominguez, who was carrying a .40-caliber pistol, drove an old Cadillac, accompanied by McClaugherty and two other men, to a nearby shopping mall. Nachima Coriz, who was carrying a shotgun, sat in the back seat of a second vehicle, a Suzuki.
Solis and some friends arrived in a black Neon. The Cadillac and the Neon pulled up alongside each other pointing in opposite directions so that the driver’s side doors were facing each other.
Gunshots erupted after 15-year-old Vincent Martinez jumped out of the Neon with a baseball bat. Solis, who was in the driver’s seat of the Neon, was fatally shot in the head and Martinez was wounded. A total of 14 bullets struck the Neon.
Two days later, police arrested Dominguez and McClaugherty and recovered a shotgun and a .40 caliber pistol outdoors near McClaugherty’s apartment. Dominguez and McClaugherty were charged with first-degree murder, aggravated battery, assault, tampering with evidence, conspiracy to tamper with evidence, and shooting a gun from a motor vehicle.
The two were tried separately in Bernalillo County District Court. McClaugherty went on trial first in February 2001. The prosecution’s case rested almost solely on the testimony of Coriz, who was not charged in the shooting.
Coriz testified that after learning that Solis was dead, he turned himself in to police and implicated McClaugherty and Dominguez. Coriz told the jury that he saw McClaugherty get out of the Cadillac and run toward a fence when the shooting began. According to Coriz, McClaugherty returned and fired shots at the Neon.
Under cross-examination by the prosecutor, Kenny Montoya, Coriz denied he had received any favorable treatment in return for his testimony, even though he admitted that he was present at the shooting armed with a shotgun and that he helped hide the shotgun and pistol after the shooting.
No physical evidence linked McClaugherty to the shooting. He testified in his own defense and said that he believed they were going to the shopping mall to fight with fists, not with guns. He said that when gunfire erupted, he fled on foot.
During cross-examination of McClaugherty, Montoya—despite objection by McClaugherty’s defense attorney—was allowed to question McClaugherty about alleged admissions he made to his girlfriend and his sister, even though neither the sister nor the girlfriend testified. Montoya said he had statements from the sister and girlfriend that McClaugherty admitted he fired a gun during the shooting. McClaugherty denied making the statements.
Montoya emphasized during his closing argument to the jury that Coriz had no deal with the prosecution and had come forward to testify because “it was the right thing to do.” Montoya also noted that Coriz admitted that he participated in the shooting and that he could still be charged for his involvement.
On March 6, 2001, McClaugherty was found guilty on all counts. On July 12, 2001, McClaugherty was sentenced to life in prison plus 12 years.
On July 18, attorney John D. Cline was retained to handle McClaugherty’s appeal. A month later, based on an investigation of Coriz’s case in Sandoval County, Cline filed a motion for a new trial claiming that Coriz did have a deal for leniency and that his denial at trial was false. Moreover, Cline argued that Montoya had knowingly withheld evidence of the deal, resulting in a constitutionally unfair trial for McClaugherty.
Ultimately, a hearing on the motion was held in January 2002. At the hearing, Cline presented evidence that in July 1999, less than a month after Solis was killed, Coriz was charged with stabbing Anthony Lopez four times in nearby Sandoval County. Coriz pled guilty to aggravated battery with a deadly weapon on January 28, 2000, a year prior to McClaugherty’s trial, and he was sentenced to 18 months in prison in May 2000.
Cline presented court records and transcripts which showed that in July 2000—two months after Coriz was sentenced to 18 months for the stabbing—Coriz’s attorney filed a motion to reduce the sentence.
On February 28, 2001, Coriz had testified against McClaugherty and denied receiving a deal. On April 23, 2001—two months after McClaugherty was convicted—there was a hearing on Coriz’s motion to reduce his sentence in Sandoval County District Court.
Montoya, who prosecuted McClaugherty, appeared and said he had “pushed for reconsideration” of Coriz’s sentence. Montoya praised Coriz for “what he’s done for me” and said Coriz had been cooperative though there were no promises. Montoya said Coriz had helped obtain a first-degree murder conviction and that Coriz might be in danger in prison because of his testimony. Montoya urged that Coriz be moved to the Sandoval County Jail for the rest of his sentence. The judge, instead, ordered Coriz released immediately.
The stabbing victim, Albert Lopez, testified at the hearing on McClaugherty’s motion that Montoya told him privately that Coriz, in return for his testimony, would not be going to prison. Lopez also testified that he had encountered Coriz while he was still out on bail before he pled guilty and that Coriz was “bragging to me, like ‘I cut a deal with them. I made a deal.’”
Moreover, Lopez testified that a victim advocate from Bernalillo County called him and informed him that Montoya “had worked a plea agreement with (Coriz) in order for his testimony.”
Montoya and Coriz both testified at the hearing on McClaugherty’s motion and denied there was any deal. The motion for new trial was denied on January 22, 2001.
In 2002, Dominguez was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, evidence tampering, assault and shooting a gun from a motor vehicle. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
In February 2003, the New Mexico Supreme Court vacated McClaugherty’s convictions and ordered a new trial. The Court held that Montoya’s cross-examination of McClaugherty about the alleged statements of his girlfriend and sister was grossly improper. The Court said it would not decide the claim that Coriz had lied because of its reversal for the improper cross-examination.
When the case came back to Bernalillo County District Court, Cline, McClaugherty’s attorney, filed a motion to dismiss the case based on egregious misconduct by Montoya. Cline presented the statements of the girlfriend and the sister along with a transcript of Montoya’s description of the statements at McClaugherty’s trial.
Cline argued that Montoya had grossly misrepresented the statements when he said they were confessions because the statements actually tended to clear McClaugherty of any involvement in the shooting.
Bernalillo County District Judge Neil Candelaria granted the motion and dismissed the charges. “I don't see how Mr. Montoya ever in good faith could have asked the questions he asked,” Candelaria said.
McClaugherty was released on bond in May 2003. However, in September 2003, Judge Candelaria, at the request of the prosecution, reconsidered his ruling and reversed himself, thus reinstating the charges against McClaugherty.
Cline’s colleague, Zachary Ives, appealed the ruling to the New Mexico Supreme Court and in July 2008, the Court reversed Candelaria’s decision. The Court held that Montoya had knowingly presented false evidence during McClaugherty’s trial and dismissed the charges.
– Maurice Possley