LOS LUNAS — Police tried to coerce Leland Hust to confess to raping and killing a 6-year-old Rio Rancho girl by falsely telling him that DNA evidence linked him to the 2018 attack, his attorney told jurors Wednesday in opening statements.
But prosecutors said DNA shows Hust was the only person who could have committed the crime.
The allegation police made during an hours-long interview in 2018 caused Hust to question his own innocence in the girl’s death, defense attorney Michael Rosenfield said during the first day of Hust’s trial.
“They plant in (Hust’s) mind that he is the perpetrator,” Rosenfield said of detectives who interviewed Hust for about six hours the day of his arrest in October 2018, about two months after the killing.
Rosenfield also told jurors that another member of the household, who is a convicted sex offender, is more likely to have attacked the girl.
The prosecution, citing DNA evidence, told jurors that Hust was the only household member who could have committed the crime.
Attorneys for both sides made opening statements in Hust’s retrial on a pair of felony charges in the August 2018 rape and strangulation death of Ariana “Jade” Romeo in a house in Rio Rancho.
In June 2021, a jury found Hust not guilty of first-degree murder in Ariana’s killing. Jurors deliberated 17 hours in that trial.
But jurors deadlocked on charges of child abuse resulting in death and criminal sexual penetration of a child under 13. Hust now is being retried on those charges.
He faces a minimum sentence of 35 years in prison if convicted of the child abuse charge. Criminal sexual penetration of a child carries a minimum sentence of 18 years.
Ariana was found dead, partially clothed and bloodied on Aug. 11, 2018, in a bedroom of the Rio Rancho house she and her mother shared with Hust and others. A forensic examination found that she had been raped and strangled or smothered to death.
Prosecutors allege that Hust had the best opportunity to attack Ariana while other members of the household were away or asleep.
Ariana’s mother was working at a Rio Rancho brew pub the night of the killing and routinely returned home about 3 a.m., witnesses testified.
Defense attorneys on Wednesday also disputed the value of DNA evidence collected at the crime scene, both from Ariana’s body and bloodstains on the bed where her body was found.
Deputy District Attorney Jessica Martinez told jurors that Hust was the only member of the household who could not be excluded as a contributor to DNA evidence found at the scene.
Hust’s attorney countered that DNA evidence did not conclusively identify Hust as the attacker. As a frequent visitor to Ariana’s room, Hust’s DNA could have been transferred to the girl’s body or bedding, Rosenfield said. No semen was found at the scene.
Rosenfield said police overlooked an older member of the household as the likely suspect in the attack. He identified Winston Scates Sr., the owner of the house, as the likely attacker.
Scates, 66, pleaded guilty in 2019 to sexual contact of a minor, a third-degree felony, for inappropriately touching a female family member.