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Judge recuses himself in case of man who killed 5 as a teen

December 8, 2018

District Court Judge John Romero, left, listens to defense attorney Stephen Taylor, right, at the amenability hearing for Nehemiah Griego, center, who as a 15-year-old killed his parents and three young siblings, in Children's Court in Albuquerque, N.M. on Monday, December 3, 2018. The weeklong hearing for Griego is meant to determine whether he has been rehabilitated while in state custody and is prepared for release. (Greg Sorber/The Albuquerque Journal via AP)

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A New Mexico judge recused himself Friday from overseeing court proceedings for a man who shot and killed five family members when he was 15, adding yet another wrinkle for a case that has taken years to resolve.

Children’s Court Judge John Romero’s recusal in Albuquerque came on what previously had been set as the final day in a hearing held to determine whether 21-year-old Nehemiah Griego should be sentenced as a juvenile or an adult for the January 2013 shootings at his home south of Albuquerque.

Regina Griego, the defendant’s aunt who became his guardian after he killed his parents, expressed frustration with the prosecution over its support for the recusal. She is among family members who are in support of Griego being sentenced as a juvenile, and therefore released from state custody, while two older half-sisters of his have said they want to see him sentenced as an adult.

“Enough is enough, they continue to rake the family over the coals and do not allow closure,” Regina Griego said in an email to The Associated Press. “It has torn the family apart.”

This week’s hearing, which unfolded much like a trial with evidence and numerous witnesses presented, was the second one for Griego, who was found in 2016 by Romero to have proven receptive to psychological treatment while in state custody. That decision placed Griego — who was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder — on track for release on his 21st birthday.

But the decision was overturned by the New Mexico Court of Appeals earlier this year on grounds that Romero had not considered certain testimony presented by the prosecution the first time around.

Court spokesman Sidney Hill confirmed Romero had stepped down from the case, saying the judge was preparing a written order on the recusal. A spokesman for the Bernalillo County district attorney said the decision stemmed from a conversation Romero had after court was no longer in session Thursday with an expert witness.

Prosecutors had raised concerns about the conversation on grounds it didn’t follow court protocol.

The woman who had been called forward by Romero was a witness for Griego’s defense team, said Michael Patrick, the district attorney’s spokesman. Much of the proceedings in court this week have been closed to the public — including the testimony from the witness who had been on the stand Thursday — because the hearing’s focus was expected to largely be on Griego’s psychological treatment.

Regina Griego, who as a family member has been allowed to observe proceedings otherwise closed to the public, said the conversation between Romero and the witness had appeared to amount to a “passing exchange of pleasantries.”

In 2013, authorities say Griego fatally shot his parents and three young siblings — ages 9, 5 and 2 — at their home south of Albuquerque. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and child abuse resulting in death in 2015.

Sheriff’s deputies said the rampage had begun in his parents’ bedroom, where he shot his mother as she slept. He then shot his brother and two sisters.

Griego’s father, a reformed gang member and pastor at an Albuquerque megachurch, was shot and killed hours later when Griego ambushed him as he returned home, authorities said.

Griego’s lawyers have presented testimony in the past of him enduring abuse.

On Friday, his attorney Stephen Taylor said he was assessing possible next steps.

It’s expected the case will be reassigned to another judge. But it’s not clear who he or she will be.

Taylor noted that Romero — a longtime New Mexico Children’s Court judge and president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges — knows the state’s children’s code and juvenile justice system well.

In New Mexico, the maximum sentence for a crime committed by someone the court considers a juvenile cannot extend beyond the person’s 21st birthday, meaning Griego could have been released immediately had the judge again found he had been receptive to treatment.

If Griego ultimately is sentenced as an adult, the next judge could have considerably broad discretion over his sentence, with the maximum penalty being 120 years in prison.

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