Judge decides police violated due process rights of homicide suspect, kicks DA off case

District court addresses due process concerns from defendant

Joshua Kellogg
Farmington Daily Times
  • Johnny Davidson, 47, is accused of fatally shooting Justin Tapaha, 45, of Fruitland, along Airport Drive on the night of Aug. 20, 2020, according to The Daily Times archives.
  • Davidson’s attorneys filed an Aug. 2 motion to have the case dismissed, claiming that Farmington police violated their client’s constitutional rights by recording a privileged conversation involving Davidson and an attorney first hired in the case.

FARMINGTON — A district court judge has determined the Farmington Police Department violated the constitutional rights of a man accused of homicide by recording him talking with his attorney, almost leading to the judge dismissing the casep

The San Juan County District Attorney’s Office has been thrown off the case due to the “illegal eavesdropping” of Farmington police, requiring the attorneys to find another prosecutor to handle the case by a December deadline set by the judge.

Johnny Davidson, 47, is accused of fatally shooting Justin Tapaha, 45, of Fruitland, along Airport Drive on the night of Aug. 20, 2020, according to The Daily Times archives.

He is accused of a second-degree felony count of murder and shooting at or from a motor vehicle (great bodily harm), according to court documents.

The latest developments on Davidson’s case stem from Judge David Pederson’s Nov. 5 order, which he issued following an Oct. 22 court hearing on multiple motions filed by the defense.

More:Attorneys: Police recorded confidential talk between accused murder suspect, lawyer

Judge Pederson granted Davidson’s motions to suppress illegal interview room tapes of his cell phone calls to his attorney, suppress evidence from his cell phone and its contents along with denying his motion to suppress video surveillance footage evidence.

Pederson also issued sanctions against the prosecution for violating Davidson’s constitutional rights under the 4th, 5th and 6th amendments of the U.S. Constitution and parts of the New Mexico State Constitution.

Farmington Police’s recording of attorney-defendant phone call

Davidson’s attorneys filed an Aug. 2 motion to have the case dismissed, claiming that Farmington police violated their client’s constitutional rights by recording a privileged conversation involving Davidson and an attorney first hired in the case.

The Daily Times previously reported that one of Davidson’s attorneys, Steve Murphy, and Davidson’s first attorney, Lee McMillian, said Farmington police officers recorded a confidential conversation involving McMillian and Davidson.

Murphy estimated the recording at about 30 minutes when Davidson was taken into custody on Aug. 20, 2020, following the homicide he is accused of.

Judge Pederson leaned into Farmington police in his order, stating officers intentionally misled Davidson to believe he was not being recorded.

“The illegal eavesdropping by FPD has tainted the entire process of prosecuting the case and in the modern era it is almost unfathomable that law enforcement would do it,” Pederson wrote in the order.

More:Farmington police ID victim, new details released about Aug. 20 fatal shooting

Judge Pederson wrote there is no way to determine what illegally obtained information from Farmington police was shared with the San Juan County District Attorney’s Office as evidence of the recording is included in multiple court documents and police reports.

Farmington police in a statement to The Daily Times said justice for Tapaha and his family is a “paramount priority” for the agency.

“The (Farmington Police Department) disagrees with the Judge on several points, in particular, that there was any intent to deprive anyone of their constitutional rights,” Farmington police said in a statement. “However, like in every case, issues are litigated and decisions made.”

Murphy told The Daily Times he believes the judge’s decision is appropriate.

“It’s just a shame to me that in this day and age, that anyone would ever think it would be appropriate to record anyone talking to their attorney,” Murphy said.

Judge Pederson wrote that dismissing the case would be too harsh a sanction, as it could deprive Tapaha's family of justice and that Davidson's claims of self-defense are best left for a decision by a jury trial.

District Attorney’s office removed from case

The judge did disqualify the Division 1 of the 11th Judicial District Attorney’s Office from prosecuting the case to provide Davidson a fair trial that is “free of tainted evidence,” according to the order.

“Severe sanctions are warranted against the State for the above referenced constitutional violations of Defendant’s Rights,” Judge Pederson said in the order.

When asked about the judge’s Nov. 5 order, San Juan County Chief Deputy District Attorney Dustin O'Brien said in a statement the DA’s office did not believe disqualifying their office was necessary but litigating that decision would result in a delay in prosecuting the case.

Judge Pederson wrote the county DA’s office had to designate another prosecutor by Dec. 6 to the case or he would reconsider the dismissal of the homicide case.

Pederson stated the state Attorney General’s Office, one of the DA’s offices across New Mexico or an independent special prosecutor could be selected.

Murphy stated he filed a court document, stating it would be a conflict for the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office to take the case as it would have a conflict of interest.

Davidson’s attorneys filed a complaint in March with the AG’s office about the alleged officer misconduct by Farmington police regarding the recorded attorney-defendant conversations.

New Mexico Attorney General’s Office spokesperson Jerri Mares acknowledged in a statement there would be a conflict of interest for the office to prosecute the case as Davidson could be a witness in an on-going officer misconduct investigation.

Judge Pederson wrote it was important to select a new prosecutor for a four-day jury trial set to start on March 1 as the court needs to protect and preserve Davidson’s right to a speedy trial.

Joshua Kellogg covers breaking news for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627 or via email at jkellogg@daily-times.com.

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