New Mexico Supreme Court to hear ‘warrior gene’ appeal
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The New Mexico Supreme Court will review an appeals court ruling in the case of a man convicted of murder who unsuccessfully sought to introduce evidence that he was genetically predisposed to violence.
Anthony Blas Yepez was convicted of beating, choking and burning to death his girlfriend’s 75-year-old step-grandfather, George Ortiz, during a domestic dispute in 2012.
Yepez’s lawyer attempted to introduce evidence at his 2015 trial, seeking to cast doubt on his client’s ability to form the intent required to convict him, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported .
The so-called warrior gene theory has been debated since a Dutch scientist discovered in the early 1990s that all the male relatives in a New Zealand family with a history of aggressive violence lacked a specific gene critical for regulating anger. The theory is that people with low levels of a certain enzyme, who also are abused in childhood, are prone to impulsive violence.
The violence that ended in Ortiz’s death began when Ortiz struck his girlfriend in the face, according to her testimony at Yepez’s trial.
Yepez said he didn’t remember exactly what happened next, only that he “must have blacked out.” When he regained consciousness, he was on top of Ortiz, who was bleeding profusely from the back of his head and appeared to be dead. The couple then poured cooking oil over Ortiz’s body and set it ablaze before fleeing in Ortiz’s car, according to records.
Before the case went to trial, his lawyers told a judge they planned to call expert witnesses to testify about studies that had shown people who have low levels of an enzyme that breaks down neurotransmitters, including serotonin, which is believed to help regulate mood — are more likely to be impulsively aggressive.
That’s particularly true, experts claim, if these individuals were abused as children — as, they said, Yepez had been.
His attorneys said Yepez’s enzyme level was low, which they said that cast doubt on whether the killing was premeditated. But District Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer rejected the argument and did not allow the jury to hear the expert testimony.
A Santa Fe County jury subsequently convicted Yepez of second-degree murder and sentenced him to 22 years in prison. He appealed his conviction on the grounds the warrior gene evidence should have been allowed.
The state Court of Appeals ruled in July that Sommer erred when she excluded the expert testimony. But the court also determined the mistake was harmless, because Yepez had been convicted of second-degree murder, which does not require the state to prove premeditation. It also affirmed his sentence.
L. Helen Bennett, representing Yepez under contract with the Law Offices of the Public Defender, says Sommer abused her discretion when she decided a proposed witness incorrectly interpreted the studies. Bennett is seeking a retrial for Yepez.
Information from: The Santa Fe New Mexican, http://www.santafenewmexican.com