A Santa Fe County jury found 20-year-old Zachary Gutierrez not guilty Friday in the 2018 shooting death of Richard Milan, 64, of Michigan.
Gutierrez shook and sobbed as state District Judge T. Glenn Ellington read the verdict.
Jurors deliberated for about four hours Friday, the fourth day of Gutierrez’s murder trial, before unanimously deciding the state had not proven beyond a reasonable doubt he was guilty of fatally shooting Milan.
Gutierrez was charged with second-degree murder after his companions made statements to police implicating him in Milan’s death. But two of the three girls in the group testified Thursday it was another boy in the group, Jesus Arrieta-Perez, not Gutierrez, who shot Milan.
Gutierrez also testified Thursday that Arrieta-Perez had killed Milan.
“I’m relieved,” Gutierrez’s attorney, Stephen Aarons, said in the hall outside the courtroom after the verdict was read. “It was what I expected, but you never know for sure. I think the biggest surprise isn’t the verdict but that the state went forward with this case with so much evidence against their position.”
District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies wrote in an email she was “disappointed” in the verdict. She added in a text message the case relied on witnesses’ statements as the basis for charging Gutierrez, and “those statements then totally changed.”
“While witness testimony initially put Mr. Gutierrez as the person that shot and killed Mr. Milan, they later changed their testimony,” the district attorney wrote in an email. We and law enforcement believed that [Arrieta-Perez] was credible and that was an issue for the jury to decide. We prosecuted the case that was presented.”
Arrieta-Perez initially told police he didn’t see who shot Milan because he was running away from the confrontation, but he changed his story after being arrested on a federal weapons charge.
He then said he had seen Gutierrez shoot the man.
Police never found the murder weapon — and never compared the three shell casings found at the scene to weapons found in Arrieta-Perez’s home, according to Aarons — making Arrieta-Perez’s testimony against Gutierrez the strongest evidence the state had.
Aarons attacked Arrieta-Perez’s credibility in his closing argument Friday, running down a list of things the lawyer said made the young man’s testimony unreliable.
One of the main things that set Arrieta-Perez apart from the other young people who testified, Aarons told the jury, was his lack of emotion on the stand.
“He was a pretty cool customer up there,” Aarons said, and didn’t break down like the three others who testified about what had happened that night.
“He is not working through grief or guilt or remorse,” Aarons said. “They were going through a process. [Arrieta-Perez] is not because he is stuck in a lie. He cannot tell people the truth. If he told people the truth, he would have these federal charges come down on him.”
Arrieta-Perez said on the stand his testimony against Gutierrez didn’t effect his federal case.
But Aarons cast doubt on that Friday, telling the jury he couldn’t remember the last time a Mexican national with drug and weapons charges was released from jail and not deported, as was the case with Arrieta-Perez.
“I’m sure he’s an asset to the government,” the defense attorney said. “I wish him well on that. But the way he got out, by falsely accusing someone else, we cannot accept his testimony beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The murder case was not the first or last time Gutierrez faced trouble.
He had an extensive history of encounters with law enforcement as a juvenile.
He was arrested in another case in February 2019 — about six months after Milan’s death and a few months before he turned 18 — in which he was accused of firing a handgun and fleeing police following an altercation at a local park.
Mary Carmack-Altwies said in a text message Friday that case — in which she said Gutierrez pleaded no contest to shooting at or from a motor vehicle and was sentenced as a juvenile to two years of probation — is one of the reasons her office believed he’d shot Milan.
“But we couldn’t bring that in at trial,” she wrote.
Gutierrez said after the verdict was read Friday he’s transformed his life since then.
“I’m totally different than when I started this three years ago,” he said. “I’m so into the Lord and energy and being at peace. … I love yoga. I love meditation, because it’s so centered. I never loved myself before. I was always chasing something I wasn’t, and I finally found my true self.”
Gutierrez — who has been on electronic monitoring awaiting trial — said he started his own home repair and maintenance business a year ago and plans to work toward general contractor and real estate licenses next.
Gutierrez’s mother and father, Cecelia and Matthew Gutierrez, said they knew their son hadn’t killed Milan. Despite being tested by the ordeal, they said, the family had come out stronger in the end.
“It’s been a long three years,” Cecelia Gutierrez said. “We are just so glad the truth has come out and we were set free from that. I’m just glad justice was served because there is a lot of times people don’t see that. I’m just glad the jury … saw a lot of the corrupt stuff that had happen and that my son is innocent.”
No one from Milan’s family attended the trial.
This is the second murder case handled by the First Judicial District Attorney’s Office this week in which a jury returned a verdict of not guilty.
A Rio Arriba County jury on Thursday acquitted Gabriel Sanchez, 29, of fatally shooting William Jimerson, 67 in 2017 following a trial in Tierra Amarilla.
Asked whether she felt two murderers had been set free, the district attorney wrote in an email: “I would never allow my office to prosecute a case that I didn’t think was viable. … I fully believe that both defendants committed those crimes but we simply didn’t have the evidence to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.
“I’d much rather respond to a hard fought acquittal than dismiss a case that’s not perfect,” she wrote