Moments before a jury was selected for a murder trial, a district court judge declared a mistrial Monday because the defendant was brought to the courtroom in handcuffs and shackles and wearing his inmate uniform.

Jonnel Owens, 23, has been charged with the shooting death of Luis Alonso Chairez in September 2000 in El Cerro Mission. This would have been the second trial in which a jury was to decide whether Owens is innocent or guilty.

Earlier this year, another mistrial was declared after a jury couldn’t unanimously agree on a verdict.

Owens is charged with murder, attempted murder, aggravated assault, shooting at or from a motor vehicle, child abuse, tampering with evidence, negligent use of a deadly weapon and criminal damage to property.

Owens’ defense attorney, Anna Aragon, said her client informed her that several of the jurors in the parking lot saw him in his uniform and restraints as guards from Cornell Corporation transferred him from the jail to the courtroom.

“We had already picked the jury when Jonnel was complaining how he was treated earlier in the morning,” Aragon said. “That’s when he told me some of the jurors saw him.”

Aragon said she’s not sure how many of the jurors saw her client, but said “they are not supposed to see him in the uniform or restraints β€” it could prejudice the way a jury perceives my client.”

Assistant District Attorney Steve Scott said he immediately brought the matter to District Court Judge John Pope’s attention after Aragon told him of the situation.

“There is no way that we could impanel a new jury so soon,” Scott said when asked if another jury could be convened. “We’ll have to reset the trial for a later date.”

Aragon said her client was very anxious to go to trial, but said she was glad the mistrial was declared early enough to notify witnesses about to travel to New Mexico from Arizona.

“We had one person already here to testify and several others were about to come,” Aragon said.

Pope said he was frustrated he had to declare a mistrial, but said it is against the rules for jurors to see a defendant on trial in his prison garb and restraints.

“We have nothing in writing about this rule β€” but that is going to change,” Pope said. “Mistakes happen, but I’m not happy about it. It is also a concern that he (Owens) has been held for so long.”

Chairez, who was shot in September 2000 outside an El Cerro Mission house as he was driving away, died the next day as a result of a single gunshot wound to the back of the head.

During the first trial, prosecutors contended Owens shot and killed Chairez after 25-year-old Henry Nanez argued with Chairez. Nanez is currently serving a year-long sentence for charges stemming from the shooting.

Aragon says her client was in Arizona at the time of the shooting. A videotape was introduced at the last hearing in which someone looking like Owens was seen at a Arizona Taco Bell the day Chairez was shot and killed.

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Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin, as well as the executive editor of El Defensor Chieftain, the News-Bulletin's sister paper in Socorro.
Clara is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.