Attorneys agree to lesser murder charge for teen accused in friend's slaying

·4 min read

Sep. 1—Defense attorneys for 18-year-old Efren Sifuentes-Gallegos, accused in the fatal shooting in July of his cousin and close friend, made an agreement with state prosecutors Wednesday to reduce the teen's charge to second-degree murder.

Sifuentes-Gallegos also faces counts of tampering with evidence and the unlawful carrying of handgun by a person under the age of 19.

He initially was charged with first-degree murder in the death of Andres Griego-Alvarado, also 18, although a criminal complaint for the July 7 incident gave no indication the shooting had been planned. It occurred in a car in the parking lot of an Airport Road smoke shop, where the two had shopped together and were captured on surveillance video "horse playing or joking around."

After the shooting, the complaint said, Sifuentes-Gallegos drove Griego-Alvarado to an urgent care facility and helped a woman administer CPR in an effort save his friend's life. He told police he later panicked and went home, and that he had disposed of the gun in an open field behind his property, according to the complaint.

Deputy District Attorney Kent Wahlquist said in state District Court on Wednesday his office had intended to argue for the first-degree murder charge but instead accepted the defense's waiver agreement.

Griego-Alvarado's family was adamantly against the decision, he added.

"I've discussed with them the law as it describes 'willful deliberation,' and the strength and weaknesses of the evidence, and it is the state's decision to agree to this waiver," Wahlquist said. "The family is against it."

Several members of Griego-Alvarado's family appeared in court to tell Judge T. Glenn Ellington why they felt Sifuentes-Gallegos should be charged with first-degree murder.

In the end, only one chose to provide a statement.

Anne Nava, a cousin of Griego-Alvarado, told Ellington her family feels allowing Sifuentes-Gallegos to avoid a first-degree murder charge will deprive her cousin of justice.

"Right now he's sitting at home, eating dinner with his family," Nava said of Sifuentes-Gallegos, who was released from jail in mid-July on house arrest and electronic monitoring. "He gets to sit at home, go to sleep in his bed at night. He took somebody's life." She looked at him several times as she spoke.

At one point during her testimony, Ellington asked Nava to address her comments to him rather than Sifuentes-Gallegos.

"[Griego-Alvarado] was the most selfless, loving, forgiving kid," Nava said. Sifuentes-Gallegos took that from his loved ones, she added. "He ripped it away from the family by intentionally carrying — none of us walk around with a gun," she said.

Ellington told Griego-Alvarado's family members he sympathized with them, noting he lost his godfather in a shooting 45 years ago. However, he added, the court must follow a legal process.

"I don't make charging decisions," Ellington said. "The court reviews what's put before it and determines whether or not legal standards have been met."

Prosecutors have a professional obligation to the court, he added, and can be found to have committed prosecutorial misconduct if they pursue a charge when there is no basis for them to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.

Jerry Archuleta, one of Sifuentes-Gallegos' defense attorneys, said in an interview after the hearing he believes something that has been overlooked in the case is the strong friendship and familial connection between his client and Griego-Alvarado.

"They're first cousins, but they were more like brothers," Archuleta said. "Efren, he's hurting. He feels pain. He's going through a lot of the emotions that the family is going through. ... I assume [they're] going through a lot more."

Much of his work preparing Sifuentes-Gallegos for the hearing centered on ensuring he was emotionally ready for Griego-Alvarado's family to speak, Archuleta said, adding he placed his hand on Sifuentes-Gallegos' arm several times to reassure him.

He said he understands the family's reaction to the waiver agreement on the lesser murder charge.

"You can't really explain it to the family. One, because they're in so much pain that they're not going to be able to hear things ... and even if you weren't going through that pain, it's hard to understand fundamentally," he said.

Archuleta said he has spoken with Sifuentes-Gallegos about how he can honor Griego-Alvarado in the future and work toward being a great young man.

"We want him to be a pillar to society, community, his family. Everything that any parent wants, we want the same thing for Efren," he said. "But he has a larger duty now because he has to do it for two people."