Trial in Douglas County, Reno murders set for September
RENO — A 21-year-old Salvadoran immigrant who faces the possibility of the death penalty if convicted of killing four Northern Nevadans during a two-week crime rampage in January 2019 is now scheduled to go to trial in September.
However, Wilber Ernesto Martinez-Guzman’s latest appeal is still pending before the state Supreme Court, and the district judge in Reno says everything could change if his lawyer files a formal motion seeking to prove he lacks the intellectual capacity to be executed legally in Nevada.
Washoe County Judge Connie Steinheimer said during an audio-visual hookup Monday that she has scheduled the trial to begin Sept. 20 and last up to eight weeks.
Chief Public Defender John Arrascada filed Martinez-Guzman’s latest appeal in October asking the state Supreme Court to again overturn Steinheimer’s ruling allowing him to be tried in Reno for crimes that occurred in another county. He argues the Washoe County court lacks jurisdiction to try him for the two killings and burglaries he’s accused of committing in Douglas County.
The high court agreed with him in part last March and ordered Steinheimer to revisit the matter. But she ruled again in September that prosecutors had sufficiently connected the crimes to try him in one location.
The trial was scheduled to begin in April. But defense lawyers have said they need to go to Martinez-Guzman’s home country of El Salvador — where travel currently is prohibited because of COVID-19 — to gather information to help determine if their client has an intellectual disability that would make it illegal to execute him.
Hicks said he’s working under the assumption that the defense will seek the disability declaration, and Arrascada said he’ll try to provide an update at a status hearing Feb. 1.
“We are doing our best under this worldwide pandemic … regarding our intellectual disability investigation,” Arrascada said Monday.
Steinheimer said she will set a schedule for various motion hearings but would rather wait until after the motion on disability is filed.
“If it is no longer a case eligible for the death penalty, those deadlines will be significantly different,” she said.
Federal officials have said Martinez-Guzman is in the U.S. illegally, but they don’t know how or when he arrived in the U.S. The case has drawn the attention of President Donald Trump, who used it to bolster to bolster his argument for a border wall.
Prosecutors say Martinez-Guzman stole a revolver from Gerald and Sharon David in Reno Jan. 4, 2019. They say he fatally shot Constance Koontz on Jan. 9, killed Sophia Renken on Jan. 12 and robbed and killed the Davids on Jan. 15.
The crimes are linked partly because the same gun was used in all four killings, prosecutors said. They said he had done landscaping work in the past for the victims.
Washoe County District Attorney Chris Hicks said in his latest Supreme Court filing Dec. 11 the intent for the Douglas County killings was formed in Washoe County. He said Martinez-Guzman planned to steal from his victims’ garages to obtain money for drugs, but once he had the gun, started entering homes for more valuable property.
“Guzman initially formed his plan to steal from his victims months before the crimes in this case occurred when he was doing landscaping work, but he only chose to act on an escalated version of his original plan shortly after obtaining the revolver from the Davids,” Hicks wrote.
Arrascada said in his latest filing Dec. 18 that the facts “show discreet events occurring in separate counties over a period of time, albeit by one actor.”
“The facts do not demonstrate a sufficient connection under our venue statutes to grant the Washoe County grand jury the power to return an indictment on the Douglas County charges,” he said.
Hicks said one trial is more efficient and less costly, and that Martinez-Guzman can appeal if he feels he’s been convicted unfairly. He said appropriate venue typically is subject to proof at trial.
Regardless of the court’s decision, Guzman will still be subject to prosecution for the Douglas County offenses, “either as charged now in Washoe County or in a later prosecution in Douglas County,” Hicks wrote. “Thus, Guzman’s petition does not present an urgency or a necessary circumstance requiring intervention now.”