Rio Rancho rape, homicide case in jury's hands

·4 min read

Jun. 21—LOS LUNAS — One of the attorneys representing Leland Hust told jurors Monday that an older member of the household was more likely than Hust to have raped and killed a 6-year-old girl because of the "cold and calculating" nature of the attack.

"Leland (Hust) is not a planner," Hust's attorney, Graham Dumas, told jurors in his closing argument. "He lacks the level of cunning and foresight to commit this crime in the way it was committed."

The prosecution countered in its closing that Hust was "obsessed" with Ariana "Jade" Romeo, and that Hust was the only member of the household who had the opportunity to attack the girl.

Jurors began deliberating at about 12:15 p.m. Monday after attorneys finished their closing arguments in Hust's trial for the girl's 2018 rape and death.

Dumas described Hust, 24, as an emotionally immature young man who could not have attacked Ariana in a manner that left no blood on his hands or in his room.

"This crime bears the hallmarks of experience," he said.

Dumas told jurors that Winston Scates Sr., 65, who owned the Rio Rancho house where the killing took place, was more likely to have attacked Ariana.

Scates, 65, pleaded guilty in June 2019 to sexual contact of a minor, a third-degree felony, for inappropriately touching a female family member, court records show. He received a four-year suspended sentence in that case.

But the prosecution rejected the possibility that Scates was the attacker, calling the allegation "smoke and mirrors" intended to confuse jurors.

Hust "is the only one in that house that had the opportunity to commit this crime," said Neil Carson, assistant district attorney for the 13th Judicial District.

Carson listed a number of factors he said implicate Hust.

"Everyone was asleep except for one person," he said.

"Who was the one person in this house who had the time and the opportunity to do this?" Carson asked jurors. "Who had the easiest access to (Ariana's) room? Who was known to be with (Ariana) the last time she was seen alive?

"Leland Hust is the only person in that house who falls into each and every one of those categories," Carson told jurors.

Ariana was found Aug. 11, 2018, nearly naked and bleeding in a bedroom of a Rio Rancho home she and her mother shared with Hust and seven other household members.

Deputy District Attorney Jessica Martinez told jurors that Hust used "massive force" to attack Ariana and either strangled or smothered the girl in an attempt to silence her.

"He knew details about (Ariana) that most people didn't even notice," Martinez said. "The defendant was obsessed with (Ariana). His interviews show that."

Asphyxiation was the cause of Ariana's death but the precise mechanism is unknown, Martinez has said. Some bruising was found on the girl's neck, and other evidence showed she was smothered.

Hust is charged with intentional child abuse resulting in death, and rape of a child younger than 13, both first-degree felonies. He faces an alternative count of first-degree murder during the commission of a felony. Hust could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted on either charge.

Carson told jurors that Hust was the only household member who could not be eliminated as a contributor to DNA obtained from key evidence collected from Ariana's bedroom.

Attorneys for Hust contend that the DNA evidence does not link Hust to the killing.

"What the DNA evidence does not suggest is that Leland (Hust) was the perpetrator," Dumas told jurors.

Only small amounts of male DNA were found on Ariana's body and in her room, he said. Hust could have left DNA in the girl's room when the two played hide and seek in the hours before her death.

Even if jurors accept that Hust's DNA was present on Ariana's body, it could have been transferred there by another attacker from objects that Hust touched in the room, the defense argued.

No traces of blood were found on Hust's hands or elsewhere in the house a day after the killing, Dumas said.

Dumas also told jurors that police who interviewed Hust for six hours the day of his arrest coerced him into making incriminating statements by overstating the strength of the DNA evidence implicating Hust.

"You can tell how suggestible (Hust) is by the way his narrative shifts during these interviews," Dumas said.

"He has already concluded that he's guilty based on the DNA evidence," Dumas said "He's grasping at straws trying to explain what happened and he can't do it, so he resorts to fiction."

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