Charge reduction in case of Arizona rancher could complicate things for ‘both the state and the defense’

Charges against the Arizona rancher accused of murdering an illegal alien trespassing on his property were altered Friday, one day after he was released on bond, leading his attorney to contend the case is now more complicated for “both the state and the defense.”

On January 30, septuagenarian George Alan Kelly of Kino Springs, Arizona was arrested after he was alleged to have shot 48-year-old Gabriel Cuen-Buitimea while the previously deported illegal alien was trespassing on his land roughly one and a half miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. For weeks he was facing a first-degree murder charge for the death of the Mexican national, but that changed Friday during an evidentiary hearing in Santa Cruz County Justice Court in Nogales, Arizona.

“There’s just so many things that are in question,” Justice of the Peace Emilio G. Velasquez said, according to azcentral, as he reduced the charge to second-degree murder as it heads to Santa Cruz County Superior Court for trial. “The court does find that these offenses were committed by this defendant.”

Despite the reduction, Kelly’s attorney Brenna Larkin was unflinching in her client’s defense and held firm in entering a not-guilty plea and stated to the court, “That’s a significant change in the charge. Second-degree murder is, frankly, a more complicated theory of the case for both the state and the defense.”

In the state of Arizona, second-degree murder occurs when “without premeditation: the person intentionally causes the death of another person…or knowing that the person’s conduct will cause death or serious physical injury, the person causes the death of another person…or under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to human life, the person recklessly engages in conduct that creates a grave risk of death and thereby causes the death of another person…”

As previously reported, the rancher was being held on a $1 million bond until Thursday when Velasquez had converted the cash bond to a surety bond allowing Kelly to use his 170-acre ranch as collateral in addition to the more than $300,000 raised through crowdfunding.

The prosecution has attempted to establish that Kelly recklessly fired an AK-47 at eight unarmed illegal aliens trespassing on his ranch at the time that Cuen-Buitimea was struck and have used witness testimony from two of those men to support the claim. One contended that they “felt like they were being hunted.”

However, the rancher’s defense has argued the aliens were hardly innocent trespassers but rather were smugglers connected to a cartel, themselves carrying AK-47s. Larkin further pointed to the timeline showing the five calls that Kelly had made to border patrol that day notifying them that he had heard shots on his property.

The rancher’s attorney also contended that Cuen-Buitimea’s death may have been a result of violence between rival cartels and questioned a detective investigating the case after an AK-47 shell casing was found on Kelly’s porch, “Isn’t the AK-47 the most common rifle carried by drug smugglers?”

“Yes,” he replied. She would go on to make the case that there’s a “very large incentive structure for people to come forward and to have claimed to have been witnesses,” because of an expectation of immigration benefits and “pressure from traffickers who have an interest in blaming this even on Mr. Kelly.”

The next court appearance for Kelly is expected to be on March 6.

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