Julia M. Dendinger | News-Bulletin photo
Anthony Williams, 20, stands as he is sentenced by 13th Judicial District Court Judge Cindy Mercer last week. Williams was one of three defendants sentenced that day for a 2019 triple homicide.

Los Lunas— A 6-foot gulf of sorrow separated 18 people in a Los Lunas courtroom last Wednesday afternoon as they learned the fate of the three men charged with killing three of their family members.

After a three-hour plea and sentencing hearing on Dec. 15, some family members of Darrin Bernal, Nathan Morrison and Joseph Santiago stormed out of 13th Judicial District Court Judge Cindy Mercer’s courtroom.

The judge accepted plea agreements for the three defendants — Brandon Dowdy, Robert Wilson and Anthony Williams, who were 18, 19 and 17, respectively, at the time — which resulted in sentences with little to no additional incarceration.

All three have been in custody since they were charged after the 2019 shooting.

In  the early morning hours of April 20, 2019, Bernal, 40, and Morrison, 28, both of Belen, and Santiago, 29, of Albuquerque, were shot and killed at an El Cerro home.

Dowdy, Wilson and Williams were charged in the deaths.

According to witnesses, who were at the home on El Cerro Loop for Nathan Morrison’s birthday party, the three teenagers argued with the three older men and were asked to leave the house twice. They left and when they returned the third time, witnesses claim Williams kicked open the front door and fired a shotgun at Bernal, Morrison and Santiago, killing them.

The three teens were charged with three counts of first-degree murder each in 2019, but 13th Judicial District Attorney Barbara Romo says the case “is another example of incorrect or over charging by a prosecutor who is no longer with the office.” Romo was not the district attorney when the charges were filed.

The plea offered to Dowdy and Wilson were three counts of conspiracy to commit aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. The two pleaded guilty to all three counts.

Each count carries a sentence of 18 months for a total of 4 1/2 years, which was suspended. The agreement gave Dowdy and Wilson, both now 21 years old, credit for time served — two years and 10 months — that counts toward the 4 1/2 years of post-incarceration probation. A suspended sentence is a term of imprisonment convicted criminal defendants do not have to serve provided they abide by all terms of their probation.

Williams, now 20, was identified by multiple witnesses as the person who fired the fatal shots. He entered a plea of no contest on three counts of voluntary manslaughter.

Under the law, since he was a juvenile at the time of the crime, Williams can only be confined until he is 21 years old, a benchmark he will hit in 4 1/2 months.

Prior to Wednesday’s hearing and sentencing, Romo said during preparation for trial, which had been scheduled to begin on Dec. 6, it became clear there wasn’t evidence to support a first-degree murder charge.

“There was a strong, credible self defense or defense of others claim (the defense was) going to raise. In New Mexico, it’s our burden to refute that. We have an ethical obligation to not charge or prosecute with insufficient evidence,” Romo told the News-Bulletin last week. “I wish this case had been evaluated properly in the beginning … so this wouldn’t be such a blow after 2 1/2 years.”

Defense attorneys for the three say evidence showed Dowdy was inside the house with a gun to his face when Williams acted to defend him, and Wilson was outside waiting by a vehicle.

During the sentencing, when family members made their victim impact statements, Danny Bernal, brother to Darrin, said the claim of self defense was a lie.

“All I can think of is how you three can sit there and say this was self defense. That’s a lie. My brother was a peacemaker,” Danny Bernal said. “He was brutally shot in the back of the head and one (of the other victims was shot) in the face. I don’t see how you can justify that.”

He continued, saying the three belonged in prison.

Maurelio Bernal, Darrin’s father, made a brief but emotional statement to the three defendants.

“They’re sitting here, waiting to go home for Christmas, where everyone will hug and kiss them and that is something we cannot do with our families,” Bernal said.

During the hearing, the older Bernal was critical of what he said was the DA’s office lack of communication with the victims’ families about the plea agreement.

“I didn’t know anything about it until I saw it on the news and on Facebook,” Maurelio Bernal told  Mercer. “No one called me.”

After the judge accepted Dowdy and Wilson’s pleas, she heard a motion from the family, filed by former assistant district attorney Natalie Campbell. As the attorney began reading her motion, Mercer stopped her, saying Campbell had a conflict of interest that could not be set aside by the court.

“You were assigned as the prosecutor to the original case and you have a civil suit against the DA’s office,” Mercer said.

Campbell was the ADA who filed the original charges against Dowdy, Wilson and Williams. She was terminated from the district attorney’s office in April and has filed a civil appeal of her termination.

The judge allowed Phillip Morrison, Nathan Morrison’s father, to read the motion drafted by Campbell into the record. It essentially argued the immediate family members of the three victims were denied their rights under the state’s Victims’ Rights Act, which grants them the right to confer with the prosecution about any plea deals offered in a case.

Campbell’s motion argued the family was not given that opportunity.

Romo, who joined the proceedings via telephone because she recently tested positive for COVID-19, said she and other prosecutors met with family members of all three victims several times before the pleas were accepted.

“No one in this state cares more about victims’ rights than I do. I was a victims’ rights attorney for two years,” Romo said. “The Victims’ Rights Act uses the term ‘confer’ but it is not defined. It is my office policy that families be consulted before a plea is offered.”

The DA said prosecutors in her office spoke with family members three times in November and again in early December. Romo said while the families weren’t happy with the plea deals, they understood why they were being made.

“Their rights were not violated, and for their attorney to tell them otherwise is another example of giving them false hope,” Romo said. “As a prosecutor or a defense attorney, we cannot ethically promise certain outcomes. I told them they have every right to tell the judge their feelings and wishes in this case.”

Before she considered Williams’ plea, Mercer called a recess to let members of the victims’ immediate family confer with the prosecutors again.

During the recess, Darrin Bernal’s sister-in-law, Yvette Bernal, told the News-Bulletin the terms of the plea agreements heard on Wednesday were a surprise to the family.

“Two weeks before the trial, they told us there was a plea that would give (the defendants) 25 to 45 years but (the defendants) said no,” Yvette said. “They told us to prepare for court. Then on Nov. 30 we find out this has already been offered and accepted. That Anthony (Williams) will get out when he’s 21. We met with Barbara and she basically told us this is what you get.”

When the proceedings resumed, Mercer said she had no legal basis to deny hearing the plea that was offered and accepted.

More than half a dozen family members of the three dead men spoke during the sentencing, pleading with Mercer to not accept the pleas, for Williams specifically.

As she looked at the three defendants, Rosanna Martinez, Nathan Morrison’s mother, said she saw no remorse.

“So I can’t forgive you at this time,” Martinez said. “My nights are long without my son, but my mornings are longer, knowing I have to begin my day without him.”

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.