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Two corrections officers who stood trial in the 2019 death of an inmate left the Bernalillo County courthouse as free men Tuesday after a jury found both not guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center corrections officer Jonathan Sandoval, 35, and his supervisor, Lt. Keith Brandon, 46, hugged and wept with family members and supporters after jurors returned the verdict.
Sandoval’s attorney, Sam Bregman, said after the verdicts that the officers performed as they were trained and should never have been charged.
“I didn’t think there was enough evidence to bring these charges,” Bregman said. “The jury came to the right conclusion.”
A 37-year-old father of three, Vicente Villela died in February 2019 as Sandoval and other corrections officers held him down in a cell at the Metropolitan Detention Center.
Brandon and Sandoval declined to comment after 2nd Judicial District Judge Courtney Weaks read the verdicts. Members of Villela’s family also declined to comment.
Bregman said both officers likely will return to work soon as MDC officers. Both remain on paid administrative leave with Bernalillo County.
“I think if this trial taught us anything, it’s that they have one hell of a tough job,” Bregman said. “I know that we need them back to work.”
The trial was prosecuted by New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas’ office.
“Tragedies in our justice system are very difficult on all the impacted families, and while we are grateful to the jury and the Court for their service, it is important to give voice to victims like Vicente Villela,” Balderas said in a written statement after the verdicts.
Prosecutors alleged that Sandoval, acting on orders from Brandon, pressed his knee into Villela’s back until the inmate lost consciousness and died.
Prosecutors told jurors in closing statements Monday that the two officers ignored Villela’s repeated calls of “I can’t breathe” in the moments before his death.
Video recordings of the incident were played repeatedly for jurors during the five-day trial. Jurors began deliberating late Monday afternoon and returned the verdicts by 11:30 a.m. Tuesday.
Jurors apparently agreed with defense attorneys who argued that prosecutors left too many questions unanswered to convict the officers.
Bregman and Brandon’s attorney, John D’Amato, argued that prosecutors offered no evidence that actions taken by the officers directly resulted in Villela’s death.
Bregman cited the testimony of an expert witness who said Villela had “toxic” levels of methamphetamine and fentanyl in his body.
“That much meth by itself could cause death,” Bregman said Monday in closing statements. “It could cause the collapse of his circulatory system. Is that what happened here? The government wants you to guess.”
Bregman also told jurors that Villela was “hallucinating” and “combative” as six corrections officers moved him from MDC’s booking area to a psychiatric cell.
“Who would want to be a corrections officer?” Bregman asked jurors, recalling the testimony of officers who said they were abused and assaulted by inmates on a daily basis.
Witnesses also testified that Villela’s use of meth and an enlarged heart increased his need for oxygen, Bregman said.
“Meth makes someone need more oxygen and fentanyl makes it harder to get the oxygen,” Bregman told jurors. “Being combatant with officers would have required Mr. Villela to need more oxygen.”
Dr. Lori Proe, a forensic pathologist for the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator, testified last week that Villela died of “mechanical asphyxia” caused by Sandoval pressing his knee into Villela’s back.
Bregman disputed Proe’s cause of death and told jurors that Proe had been unable to estimate how much oxygen Villela would have needed at the time of his death. “They want you to guess,” he said.
Assistant Attorney General Collin Brennan told jurors that the two officers violated their oaths to safeguard the lives of the inmates in their care.
“The officers, unfortunately on this date, focus more on their own safety and the safety of their fellow officer, and ignore the clear signs of medical distress that Mr. Villela was having that day,” Brennan said.
Villela said “I can’t breathe” at least six times in the moments before his death, and previously had requested water, Brennan told jurors.
“But he is completely ignored,” he said. “He’s asking for medical assistance. These officers are just worried about themselves.”
Prosecutors also argued that Villela was “not compliant but not fighting” with officers in the minutes before his death.
Brandon, the on-scene supervisor, ordered Sandoval to “sit on him,” which is not a permissible command, Brennan told jurors.
Testifying in his own defense last week, Brandon acknowledged that he ordered Sandoval to “sit on him” to stop Villela from “rocking and rolling.”
If an inmate rolls on his side, he can potentially grab and hurt an officer, Brandon testified.
Sandoval testified last week that officers were trying to remove handcuff and shackles from Villela after moving him to the psychiatric cell.
“But (Villela) starts squirming and moving to where we can’t take the restraints off of him, on his feet or his hands,” Sandoval told jurors.
Villela appeared to be hallucinating and in panic as officers placed him into the cell, Sandoval testified.
When Villela began to struggle, officers placed him face down on a mattress on the floor where he later lost consciousness and died. Sandoval said he placed his knee on Villela’s lower back after he heard the command “get on him.”
Villela’s family last year reached a $4.56 million settlement in a wrongful death lawsuit against Bernalillo County and Centurion Detention Health Care Services, which provided medical services at MDC at the time of Villela’s death.