Rachel Smith has spent the better part of the past two years in the county jail awaiting trial on a charge that she caused the death of a 3-month-old infant left in her care in a Cerrillos Road motel room in 2017.
But Smith’s defense attorney and prosecutors recently told a state district judge that new evidence raises the possibility that the child’s mother, Angel Arellano, might have inflicted the injuries that led to the death of Jonathan Valenzuela.
Arellano had dropped off the boy and his 2-year-old sister at the motel to be cared for by Smith.
State District Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer postponed Smith’s trial this month — just three days before it was set to begin — to give investigators time to pursue new leads in the case, including allegations that Arellano confessed to an acquaintance she had hurt her son.
“It would be extremely difficult, if not unethical, for the state to go forward with the trial at this point without setting our minds at ease that we do indeed have the right person in the courtroom,” Assistant District Attorney Larissa Breen said during a court hearing.
Smith is now out on bail with electric monitoring. She still faces a first-degree felony charge that could send her to prison for up to 18 years.
Arellano’s attorney, Marc Edwards, said Friday that he had just taken her on as a client and could not comment for this story. Arellano hasn’t been charged.
Smith’s defense lawyer, Stephen Aarons, recently filed a motion asking the court to approve an arrangement that he hopes will encourage the child’s mother to testify on Smith’s behalf at trial, even if it means implicating herself.
Aarons is asking the court to grant “use immunity” to Arellano, who is listed as a witness for the state. Such immunity would prevent prosecutors from using anything she said on the stand during Smith’s trial to prosecute her for her son’s death.
The immunity would not prevent the state from prosecuting her based on other evidence.
Without the immunity, Aarons says in his motion, Arellano will invoke her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination by remaining silent during Smith’s trial.
Arellano attempted to abort her son by self-harm while pregnant, screamed that she did not want the baby and threatened suicide before he was born, the lawyer says in his motion. He also wrote that Arellano gave the baby to Smith about 33 hours before his death. “The baby could have been grabbed by the throat and violently shaken before this final exchange,” Aarons wrote.
Smith assumed care of Jonathan and his sister on March 10, 2017, according to police reports. She told police she fed him and put him to bed but awoke the next morning to find he was not breathing. She then called 911.
The child had no visible injuries. Smith told investigators she had used heroin the night before, and police originally speculated she may have rolled over on the child in the night.
An autopsy revealed the boy died from bleeding in the brain caused by blunt force trauma.
The father of a man with whom Arellano — then 17 — was involved at the time has since told police that Arellano told his son that she had harmed the boy before delivering him to Smith, according to court filings.
Assistant District Attorney Breen is opposing Aarons’ motion, saying that granting Arellano immunity would devastate the state’s chances of prosecuting her if the Santa Fe Police Department’s renewed investigation reveals Arellano was responsible for the infant’s death.
“The state has no doubt Defendant would like to have Ms. Arellano have leave to testify she may have actually killed [Jonathan], if that is indeed what she will say,” Breen wrote in a motion filed Friday in state District Court, “but the court has to look at the potential detriment to the public interest in getting justice for [the baby’s] death.”
A spokesman for District Attorney Marco Serna said in an email that Smith’s attorney hasn’t provided documentation to support new allegations involving Arellano.