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New Mexico murder conviction overturned due to an illegal interview through Skype

Convicted of kidnapping and murder in 2012, Truett Thomas was to serve a life sentence in the Guadalupe County Correctional Facility in Santa Rosa, New Mexico. The New Mexico Supreme Court, however, reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial after it found out Thomas’ constitutional rights were violated, reports the Albuquerque Journal.

Back in 2010, Guadalupe Ashford was found dead behind a trash can in a small parking lot, with authorities arresting Thomas after they found blood on the scene that belonged to him. Thomas denied knowing the woman, though he would not go to trial for another two years.

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Before the trial began, New Mexico’s forensic analyst moved away from the state, with the defense initially agreeable to a two-way interview through Skype. Thus, the prosecution did not subpoena the forensic analyst to appear in court. The defense changed its mind as the trial neared, but because it would be too late for a subpoena and since the judge already gave the Skype interview the green light, the trial moved forward.

Thomas was subsequently found guilty of kidnapping and murder, though the New Mexico Supreme Court found that Thomas’ Sixth Amendment rights were violated. The Sixth Amendment gives a defendant the right to confront witnesses in court, which did not happen in Thomas’ case, since the forensic analyst was interviewed through Skype.

“[The forensic analyst’s] involvement in the case was significant, and she testified to the results of the measurements she performed,” reads the unanimous New Mexico Supreme Court decision. “The DNA profiles were offered as the sole evidence that implicated Defendant in this crime. We conclude that there is no reasonable possibility the testimony of the absent forensic analyst did not influence the verdict and accordingly that the error was not harmless.”

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New Mexico’s top court also noted that, back in 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a proposal that would allow unavailable witnesses to testify through two-way video chat by amending the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.

As a result, not only did the New Mexico Supreme Court toss out the kidnapping charges, but also order a retrial on the murder charges. According to the highest court in the state, the retrial is not considered double jeopardy, since there was enough evidence to sustain a conviction in the original trial.