A 45-year-old Cortez man glanced at his attorney then shook his head after he was found guilty of first-degree assault late Wednesday.
A jury of eight men and four women deliberated for about 90 minutes before reaching the verdict on Wednesday, Jan. 6. The defendant, Robert Espinoza, will be sentenced on Feb. 25.
Immediately after Chief District Court Judge Doug Walker read the verdict, public defender Katie Whitney patted her client on the back and whispered in his ear. After talking briefly with Espinoza’s family members, Whitney declined to comment when exiting the courtroom.
“It’s been a long week,” she said.
Assistant District Attorney Sean Murray also declined to comment on Wednesday.
Espinoza was arrested and charged with first-degree assault in connection to a knife fight that occurred at a camper trailer on the 100 block of South Washington Street just before midnight on Friday, March 13. The alleged victim suffered both a 6-inch laceration on his face and neck and two puncture wounds on his side and back, which resulted in a collapsed lung.
In a subsequent statement emailed to The Journal, Murray explained that since Espinoza was convicted of assault with a heat-of-the-moment stipulation, the initial maximum 32-year prison sentence would be reduced to a maximum of six years.
With the aid of a PowerPoint presentation, Murray didn’t hesitate on the guilt of the defendant in his closing remarks to jurors.
“Robert Espinoza is guilty of assault in the first degree beyond a reasonable doubt,” Murray said.
Adding that Espinoza’s accounts to police on the night in question were inconsistent, Murray asked the jurors to consider how the defendant could throw the victim to the ground after being stabbed if he also told authorities that he was unaware that he had been stabbed until after leaving the scene.
Murray also addressed the defendant’s claims of self-defense, telling jurors that an individual in fear of his life wouldn’t ask his supposed attacker if he wanted to die, and that it was also unreasonable for someone that claimed self-defense to stab the supposed attacker in both the neck and back when lying on the ground.
“That’s not self-defense,” Murray said of the defendant’s actions. “He wanted to have a knife fight.”
Whitney was also quick to summarize in her closing statements to jurors that her client was indeed innocent of assault.
“Robert Espinoza was attacked,” Whitney said. “He reacted responsibly.”
Claiming that her client was rattled after being attacked, she argued that it was completely reasonable for the defendant to be unaware that he was stabbed during the heat of a knife fight. She also posed to jurors, asking why the victim, who testified that he loved knives, would subsequently drop his knife when physically confronted by a supposed knife-wielding attacker?
“It doesn’t make any sense,” Whitney told jurors.
Whitney also asked jurors to consider the alleged victim’s hesitation to testify against his alleged attacker, stating he only took the witness stand due to court order.
“Robert Espinoza is not guilty,” Whitney reiterated in her closing remarks to jurors.
On the witness stand for nearly two-and-a-half hours on Tuesday, the 31-year-old victim was called as the prosecution’s first witness.
“Did you stab Robert Espinoza?” Murray asked.
“No,” he replied.
The victim continued, telling jurors that Espinoza was looking for drugs on the night in question when he verbally provoked the defendant into a physical confrontation.
“(Espinoza) was coming at me like a monkey,” the victim said. “He punched me in the head.”
Claiming that he was unarmed, the victim added that he never had a chance to defend himself, stating an eyewitness had to pull the defendant off of him after he fell to the ground. With blood squirting from his face, the victim feared death, he testified.
“I was just trying to breath,” the victim told jurors, raising his shirt to reveal stab wounds to his right side and back.
The victim said he was subsequently hospitalized for three days after his lung collapsed.
On cross-examination, the victim admitted that he had an extensive criminal history, including theft of his mother’s credit card and providing a false name to police. The victim also acknowledged that a pending case involving the assault of a police officer could result in a 16-year prison term if convicted.
At one point, the victim’s public defender, sitting at the prosecution’s table, attempted to object to the line of questioning regarding the pending criminal matters, but Walker informed her that she had “no standing” to participate in the trial proceedings.
During cross-examination, the victim also stated that Whitney was trying to confuse him on the witness stand, but he remained adamant that he didn’t possess or use a knife during the physical confrontation. He also repeated on several occasions that he didn’t remember what he told police in a subsequent voluntary interview 11 days after the attack.
“I’m trying to put this out of my life,” the victim said. “I don’t want to remember being stabbed.”
On Monday, public defender Sarah Hildebrand, representing the victim, informed the court that she had advised her client to plead the Fifth Amendment if questioned about pending criminal charges filed against him while on the witness stand.
To alleviate the potential conflict, Murray granted the prosecution’s key witness full immunity on any charges related to the self-defense case as well as pending matters in unrelated cases.
Whitney argued that she should be able to cross-examine the victim on why he was granted immunity, asserting his testimony would reveal that he had a history of providing false information to police.
The court sided with the defense, clarifying that the victim’s testimony could only be used against him if he committed perjury, for example.
“He will have to answer all questions,” Walker said of the victim.
In plain clothes, Cortez Det. Buck Woodman testified on Tuesday that he collected two Smith & Wesson knives from the scene, one from the yard and the other from just inside the doorway of a camper trailer where the alleged attack occurred. Blood was found only on the knife found inside the camper.
Asked about any statements made by the defendant, Woodman recalled that Espinoza reported asking the alleged victim, “Do you want to die (expletive)?”
On cross-examination, Woodman confirmed that Espinoza was also injured in the attack, suffering a stab wound to his upper arm. Woodman also admitted that he failed to ask the alleged victim in an interview 11 days after the attack how the defendant sustained his injuries.
“I did not take note of it,” said Woodman shaking his head in regard to his March 30 report.
Two forensic biologists with the Colorado Bureau of Investigators provided evidence confirming that only one knife collected at the scene contained any DNA evidence, which was a positive match to the alleged victim. No DNA evidence linked to the defendant was found on blood samples collected at the scene, according to CBI agents.
Prior to opening statements on Monday afternoon, Whitney raised an objection to prosecutors using a photo of Charles Manson in a PowerPoint presentation. The court granted the defense request.
“We are certainly going to take out the picture of Charles Manson,” Walker told Murray.
It was unclear why the district attorney’s office had considered using a photo of the infamous cult leader – whose followers were responsible for several notorious murders in the late 1960s – when making opening statements to the jury.
Witnesses fail to appear
On Wednesday, prosecutors informed the court that two of its witnesses were unavailable to testify. Murray explained the defendant’s girlfriend and another eyewitness both had warrants for their arrest.
Evidence or truth of the matter asserted?
The head-scratching legal argument preceded a courtroom broadcast on Wednesday of an 18-minute police video captured when officers transported the defendant to the emergency room on the night in question.
At issue was whether jurors should be instructed to consider the video as “evidence” or “truth of the matter asserted.”
“You want the jury to decide what law students discuss in an entire semester?” Walker asked prosecutors.
The court ultimately simplified the language, instructing the jury to only consider statements the defendant made to police. The jury then viewed the video, which opened with Espinoza laughing with officers before he was placed in a patrol car.
While en route to the emergency room and without any questioning, Espinoza immediately and voluntarily told officers that he went to the scene on the night in question looking for the owner of the camper, where the defendant and his girlfriend both resided. When he attempted to leave the scene, Espinoza told police that the alleged victim claimed he had a knife before “flying out” toward him.
At the emergency room, Espinoza removed his jacket and shirt moments before a police detective entered. Without reading a Miranda warning, the detective proceeded, informing Espinoza to reveal his side of the story.
“He stabbed me and we started wrestling,” Espinoza said, claiming he never saw the defendant with a knife because it was dark.
“I didn’t really know that he stabbed me until after I left,” Espinoza continued.
After the prosecution rested Wednesday morning, Whitney requested an acquittal, claiming Murray had failed to meet his burden of proof that Espinoza didn’t act in self-defense.
“There’s a lot of inconsistencies in the testimony,” Whitney argued.
Murray countered, claiming no evidence had been presented to contest the first-degree assault charge. He also reminded the court that the defendant asked the victim if he wanted to die during the attack.
The defense request for acquittal was ultimately denied.
Espinoza opted not to testify at trial, and Whitney didn’t call any witnesses to testify on her client’s behalf.