Judge dismisses homicide case, citing Farmington police's handling of evidence

DA, police believe the decision will be appealed to state court of appeals

Joshua Kellogg
Farmington Daily Times
  • Judge David Pederson granted Johnny Davidson’s motion to dismiss the homicide case on Jan. 14 in a six-page order.
  • Steve Murphy, one of Davidson’s attorneys, told The Daily Times he believes the judge’s decision was appropriate.
  • Police Chief Hebbe appeared distraught and angry by the judge's decision in a Jan. 19 video interview with The Daily Times.

FARMINGTON — A homicide case against a Farmington man has been dismissed after a district court judge ruled Farmington police and the prosecutors were “profoundly culpable” for the loss of crucial video evidence favoring the defendant.

District Court Judge David Pederson’s order stated there was no other sanction left to protect the defendant’s rights than dismissing the case with prejudice, prohibiting the homicide case from being refiled.

The case may be headed to the New Mexico Court of Appeals.

The decision has left the Farmington police chief upset with how his agency handled parts of the investigation and also upset at how the family of the man fatally shot is not getting justice.

Judge Pederson granted Johnny Davidson’s motion to dismiss on Jan. 14 in a six-page order, according to a copy of the order.

Davidson was accused of fatally shooting Justin Tapaha, 45, of Fruitland, on Airport Drive during a confrontation on the night of Aug. 20, 2020.

He was facing second-degree felony counts of shooting at or from a motor vehicle and murder.

Steve Murphy, one of Davidson’s attorneys, told The Daily Times he believes the judge’s decision was appropriate.

Murphy believes Farmington police lied in their reports filed in the case.

The attorney also said he couldn't believe officers initially lied about recording the privileged conversations involving his client and his former attorney.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in over 30 years of practice,” Murphy said. “It’s disturbing that anything like this could happen in this day and age.”

Both the San Juan County District Attorney’s Office and Farmington police were disappointed by the court’s decision to dismiss the case with prejudice.

The DA's office believes the case will be appealed to the New Mexico Court of Appeals and that it is unacceptable that a person can be shot and killed with the defendant suffering no consequences, according to Chief Deputy District Attorney Dustin O’Brien.

“The court made several rulings that are not supported by facts,” O’Brien said. “We hope the court of appeals will recognize this."

Judge says police withheld crucial video evidence

The last order from Judge Pederson details his decision to dismiss the homicide case with prejudice, preventing charges from being refiled against Davidson.

The judge wrote in a previous court decision that he did not want to dismiss the case.

Judge Pederson wrote in the Nov. 5 order that dismissing the case would be too harsh a sanction, depriving Tapaha’s family of justice, and said he believing Davidson’s claims of self-defense should be decided by a jury.

A review of the Jan. 14 order shows the judge was fed up with the actions by law enforcement and the prosecuting attorneys repeatedly violating Davidson’s rights.

The focus of the Jan. 14 order is surveillance video footage from the Sundowner Mobile Home & RV Park at 219 Airport Dr., near the scene of the crime.

Testimony by a Farmington school resource officer and detective and the two men connected to Sundowner showed Farmington police obtained a copy of the video footage then did not provide the video to Davidson and possibly “lost” the video, according to the order.

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The judge wrote Farmington police either intentionally disposed of the video or at a minimum, recklessly or grossly negligently lost it.

Chief Hebbe said the agency is searching for the thumb drive the video was saved on and hopes to produce it soon.

Judge Pederson also wrote the defense was not aware of the video until the two men from Sundowner notified them about its existence.

“The prejudice to the Defendant is significant as the missing thumb drive would have strengthened tremendously his self defense argument with a much (clearer) depiction of the shooting incident than the Airport Auto surveillance video,” Judge Pederson wrote in the order.

One of the men from Sundowner reviewed the video footage, testifying that it shows the “angry upset demeanor of the shooting victim” that corroborates the version of the shooting presented by Davidson, the judge wrote.

Judge Pederson wrote that Farmington police should have exercised extra due diligence in handling crucial evidence like the “lost” video and dismissing the case was the last resort.

“The Court cannot impose any meaningful sanction upon the (prosecution) for the continuing, egregious Discovery and Brady violations except for the ultimate sanction of Dismissal with prejudice," according to the judge's order. "No other sanction would protect the due process and fair trial rights of the defendant.”

Previous sanctions against DA, police

Judge Pederson’s Jan. 14 order follows a long string of events where the judge sanctioned the San Juan County District Attorney’s Office and the Farmington Police Department for how the agencies handled the case.

It started when Lee McMillian, Davidson’s initial attorney, and Murphy stated that Farmington police recorded a confidential and privileged conversation involving McMillian and Davidson.

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

Judge Pederson in a Nov. 5 order wrote Farmington officers intentionally misled Davidson, making him think he wasn’t being recorded while being held in custody.

The judge noted the “illegal eavesdropping” by officers tainted the entire prosecution of the case.

The Nov. 5 order also removed the county DA’s office from prosecuting the case in an effort to provide Davidson a fair trial that was “free of tainted evidence.”

Police chief acknowledges “blunders” in investigation, wants justice for victim

Police Chief Hebbe appeared distraught and angry in a Jan. 19 video interview with The Daily Times.

He took time to acknowledge his agency’s “blunders” in handling the investigation and his willingness to be accountable on the witness stand for his subordinates’ decisions.

He strongly believes there was a way to hold Farmington police accountable for its shortcomings in the case while allowing Davidson to have a jury trial.

Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe

Judge Pederson’s order left Hebbe feeling sick that they lost a case where an innocent man was shot to death.

“I'm very unhappy with the criminal justice system. And in its inability to deliver justice to Mr. Tapaha and his family. And some of that is on us,” Hebbe said.

The police chief noted he is in his third day of meetings with officers regarding the case, working to make sure the same mistakes don't happen again.

Hebbe told The Daily Times he believes Judge Pederson is upset with his agency over the recording of Davidson and his attorney but argues there was less than three minutes of the conversations between the two men captured by cameras.

Davidson’s attorney previously said he believes about 30 minutes of conversations were recorded.

Hebbe hopes there can still be justice for Tapaha and his family as an appeal of the decision to the state appeals court is likely.

“I'm unhappy that this (decision) was made by a judge from outside of our town. I'm unhappy that he assumed so much of the worst of us and overlooked a clear killing,” Hebbe said. “After 31 years in the criminal justice system, I can tell you, this is one of my lowest moments with it.”

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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