Victim's daughter says justice has been served in case

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AZTEC — An Aztec District Court judge sentenced Rick Stallings to life in prison without the possibility of parole this morning for the murder of Karen Cugnini.

Stallings, 52, was convicted of five felony counts, including first-degree murder (willful and deliberate) on Dec. 4 following a week-long trial before Chief District Judge Karen Townsend.

A jury found Stallings guilty of slaying Cugnini in her Flora Vista home during an armed burglary.

Cugnini was found by a family friend on Oct. 1, 2015, in her bedroom with a gunshot wound to the back of her head.

One of the victim's daughters, Becky Cugnini, was one of four people who gave a statement to the court before the sentencing. She described her mother as a sweet lady who loved to take care of her grandchildren.

"I do feel like justice was served," Becky Cugnini said following the hearing. "Hopefully now, we can start the healing process."

Det. Katie Robbins of the San Juan County Sheriff's Office addressed the court, telling Townsend the slaying was one of the most heinous crimes she's ever investigated.

In a brief statement to the court, Stallings continued to state he did not kill Karen and told her family that he was sorry for her family to “go through this.”

He told the court he believed Robbins, the prosecutors from the San Juan County District Attorney’s Office and the judge were against him.

Stallings acted as his own attorney with court-appointed attorney Liane Kerr serving as standby counsel. He claimed there is a lot of evidence in the case that wasn’t heard by the jury, adding they only heard one side of the story.

Stallings will begin his sentence of life in prison without parole after serving sentences for three other convictions in the case.

Townsend sentenced Stallings to a total of 16 years and six months for the larceny of a firearm, unlawful taking of motor vehicle and theft of a credit card convictions. He received five years and six months for each of the three convictions, which will be served consecutively.

Dustin O'Brien, San Juan County chief deputy district attorney, said the prosecutors requested that Stallings serve the sentences in that order to help keep him in custody in case an issue arises with the convictions in the appeals process, should Stallings appeal his case.

"We think the judge issued an appropriate sentence," O'Brien said.

For the purposes of sentencing, O'Brien said Stallings was not sentenced on the aggravated burglary conviction because it was merged with the first-degree murder conviction.

In a separate case, Stallings was also sentenced to 13 years in prison for a conviction of a second-degree felony count of possession of a deadly weapon by a prisoner. A jury found Stallings guilty following a one-day trial on Oct. 12.

Stallings was found guilty of whittling a weapon from a pair of glasses, which was found in his cell at the San Juan County Adult Detention Center, according to The Daily Times archives.

O'Brien said the sentence for the possession of a deadly weapon conviction is scheduled to be served following the first-degree murder sentence.

There are three pending criminal cases for Stallings between Aztec magistrate and district courts.

Those charges include a felony count of possession of a controlled substance, one felony count of battery upon a peace officer and a felony count of possession of a firearm or destructive device by a felon.

Joshua Kellogg covers crime, courts and social issues for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627 or via email at jkellogg@daily-times.com.

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