Murder trial: Alejandro Ramirez takes the stand and denies shooting Johnny Vialpando Jr.
AZTEC — Alejandro Ramirez testified at his murder trial on Thursday that he was speaking with Johnny Vialpando Jr. about his conversion to Christianity moments before the 25-year-old man was shot to death in front of his wife and stepchildren on April 27, 2013, outside the Animas Valley Mall.
Ramirez twice denied being the shooter, claiming he heard the gunfire as he was leaving the scene with his brother, Luis, in a white SUV.
"I looked around, 'What was that?'" Ramirez said on the stand Thursday. "As I believe anyone else would do."
Shortly after the shooting, the Ramirez brothers were stopped in their vehicle near the intersection of county roads 3000 and 3635 and placed under arrest in connection to Vialpando's murder.
A firearm was later located near the intersection of county roads 3000 and 350. Firearms expert Kevin Streine testified at Ramirez's trial Wednesday that the gun, when fired, placed unique markings on the shell casings found at the scene of the shooting.
Ramirez, a 5-foot-2-inch Hispanic man with long curly hair, also matched descriptions of the shooter provided by several eyewitnesses at the scene.
Both brothers have been charged with first-degree murder, among other offenses, in connection to the shooting.
One witness, Seth Loggins, testified Thursday that he was on his cellphone wishing his mother a happy birthday when he heard six or seven shots fired.
"I tell my mom, 'There has been a shooting,' and hang up," he said.
Loggins, 25, of Houston, Texas, told jurors the shooter had short hair, in contrast to descriptions provided by Vialpando's family. He also told jurors that the shooter fled in a lighter-colored pickup truck, not a SUV.
Lead prosecutor Marcus Blais challenged Loggins' ability to talk to his mother while also remembering specific details about the shooting.
"There are times when my mother is talking when I start to daze off," Loggins said. "She might be talking about something, and I'm off staring at the birds."
Defense attorney Thomas Clark presented several witnesses Thursday besides Loggins who challenged the state's assertion that Ramirez was the shooter.
Professor Roy Malpass of the University of Texas at El Paso provided paid testimony as an expert in eyewitness identification and eyewitness memory.
He told the jury that verbal descriptions of a suspect are "notoriously bad" when used for identification and repeated exposure to news reports and accompanying booking photos could influence a witness' memory of the incident.
He also said courtroom identification of a suspect was not as useful for identification as a photo array or police lineup, an issue Clark raised in a motion filed before the trial.
Vialpando's wife and three stepchildren were allowed to identify Ramirez as the shooter at trial on Tuesday, despite never identifying him to police.
Forensic analyst Lawrence Renner provided paid testimony Thursday in which he raised questions about the absence of blood on Ramirez's hands. Renner said if Ramirez shot Vialpando at the distance suggested by witnesses, blood spray should have been found on his left hand and the firearm.
A state forensic analyst testified Wednesday that the limited amount of DNA found on the handgun could not be traced to any specific individual, and no DNA, besides Ramirez's DNA, was found on his hands.
Ramirez was grilled in cross examination by Blais after providing his account of the day's events in testimony.
Ramirez said during his testimony that he was "curious" about what was going on when police ordered him out of his vehicle through a loud speaker.
Blais challenged his choice of words, and Ramirez waffled.
"I actually was scared," he said. "I thought I was gonna get shot."
Ramirez also insisted he and his brother were driving aimlessly after leaving the mall to find rivers and parks to visit again later.
"We like to take a cruise and enjoy nature," he said.
Though it was not entered as evidence at Ramirez's trial, a pound of marijuana, scales and almost an ounce of cocaine separated into small bags were found in the brothers' vehicle when they were arrested, according to the police report.
Blais, in particular, questioned Ramirez's claim he was a Christian.
"Then I am giving you the opportunity to be truthful before the Lord and everyone: did you shoot Johnny Vialpando?" Blais asked.
"Once again, I did not shoot that man," he replied.
The trial is expected to conclude Friday.