Summit County assault trial ends in conviction despitelack of witnesses
Late at night on Aug. 24, 2013, Keith Ryberg suffered a severe brain injury outside of the Manhattan Bar in Leadville. He was taken via Flight For Life to Swedish Medical Center in Englewood, where he was put into a medically induced coma for five weeks.
Almost a year later, authorities indicted a man, Santiago “Chago” Martinez, whom they say had fought Ryberg that night and was responsible for the permanent brain damage he suffered.
On Friday, after two mistrials, and nearly four years after the assault occurred, a Summit County jury found Martinez guilty of third-degree assault, a misdemeanor. The jury didn’t convict him on charges of felony second-degree assault, however.
He will be sentenced in April and faces up to two years in jail.
The District Attorney’s Office — which covers Clear Creek, Eagle, Lake and Summit counties — had previously sought a 48-year sentence for first-degree assault, the Leadville Herald-Democrat reported.
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No eyewitnesses testified during the seven-day trial, nor did surveillance camera footage show the assault occurring.
Instead, the case centered on circumstantial evidence gathered over the course of a months-long police investigation, which was assailed by the defense as sloppy and riven with missteps.
Natasha Powers, an expert witness from Palo Alto, California, testified that in her opinion, Leadville police made a host of errors during their investigation, including improperly conducting interviews and failing to follow up on new leads.
“Natasha Powers told you that this investigation — and she reviewed the whole thing — was not adequate or thorough and that many things were done improperly or not at all,” said one of Martinez’s attorneys, Monica McElyea, during closing arguments.“They didn’t follow police protocols, they didn’t interview everyone, they did not conduct a basic, cohesive police investigation … we’re talking about a complete and utter failure to investigate a case.”
The defense also seized upon the credibility of Leadville’s former police chief, Mike Leake, who resigned in 2015 amid multiple drunk driving arrests and allegations that he pawned 11 guns belonging to the police department and kept the money.
Prosecutor Johnny Lombardi pushed back against those claims during his closing remarks, saying that the investigation was conducted in line with the experience and training of the Leadville police.
While he conceded that some things could have been done better, he argued that no investigation is ever perfect. He chalked up the relatively limited investigation to a lack of resources at the Leadville Police Department.
“This is not the case of the Leadville police evidence room,” Lombardi told the jury, referencing photos presented by the defense showing disorganized and un-bagged evidence at the police department. “Nor is it the people versus Mike Leake … the crime did not occur in the evidence room. It occurred outside of the Manhattan Bar.”
Lombardi later told jurors that the disheveled state of the evidence room was due to asbestos cleanup.
The DA’s office denied the Daily’s request for those photos saying they were under seal because of an investigation into Leake.
Lacking an eyewitness to the assault, the prosecution’s case centered on testimony that Martinez and Ryberg had an altercation in the bar earlier that night during which Martinez allegedly said, “Lets take this outside.”
That confrontation was broken up, but Lombardi argued that it was the precursor to a fight that occurred when patrons of the bar were herded out after last call around 2 a.m.
A key plank of the prosecution’s case came from testimony by a man who came to police 8 months after the alleged assault. He testified that the day after the incident, he overheard Martinez on the phone saying that he had hit Ryberg.
The defense questioned that witness’s credibility, noting to jurors that he had testified on the stand that he would kill Martinez and his two brothers if he had the chance and that he had beaten up people for talking to the police “because he liked it.”
Martinez’s attorneys also offered up another explanation for Ryberg’s injuries, arguing that he had been extremely intoxicated and had gotten into a fight with another person who had pushed him against a car.
During closing arguments, McElyea also argued that Ryberg’s injuries could have happened when he fell while his brother attempted to pick him up off the street.
That fall was documented on surveillance footage, but it was unclear whether or not it was serious enough to have injured Ryberg so severely. Doctors were initially told that Ryberg and his brother had been “horseplaying.”
During closing arguments, Lombardi emphasized testimony from a surgeon who had said Ryberg’s injuries seemed inconsistent with a fall.
Jurors deliberated for several hours after closing arguments concluded on Thursday afternoon before being dismissed for the night. On Friday afternoon, they delivered their verdict.
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