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Man awaits fate in murder trial

Mitchell

By Vanessa Guthrie
Herald Staff Writer

Prosecutors used Tommy Lee Mitchell’s own words to counter his self-defense plea, while Mitchell’s defense team said he was not the initial aggressor during closing arguments Monday in a two-week trial that is nearing an end. As of Monday evening, the jury was still in the process of deliberating a verdict.

Mitchell, 21, of Farmington, faces 23 counts, which include first-degree murder, felony murder, robbery and distribution of marijuana after Joey Benavidez of Ignacio was killed in an apparent attempted robbery over a marijuana purchase.

The incident occurred April 3, 2012, about two miles southwest of Ignacio. If found guilty of first-degree murder, he faces a mandatory minimum sentence of life in prison.

District Attorney Todd Risberg was first to take the floor on behalf of the prosecutors.

He told jurors not to be distracted by diversionary tactics used by defense lawyers, including disputed DNA testing and three bullet wounds in the victim that couldn’t be fully explained.

Benavidez, 39, was shot multiple times while trying to flee inside his own home. The weapons included a .22 caliber handgun and a .38 caliber handgun.

Risberg quoted a previous statement from Mitchell, in which he said, “When you pull a gun on someone and you don’t shoot them, they will retaliate someday,” indicating Mitchell’s need to “finish him off” contradicting his self-defense plea.

Several recordings of jailhouse phone conversations were played along with a display of text messages sent by Mitchell that prosecutors said point to premeditation.

Risberg asked the jury to consider the facts and disregard irrelevant findings, saying they didn’t matter.

“Your job is to look at the evidence,” he said.

Mitchell did admit to shooting Benavidez while on the witness stand, but he said it was done in self-defense.

Defense lawyer Chris Trimble said Benavidez pulled a knife, becoming the initial aggressor, and Mitchell did what was necessary to protect himself and his friend.

He also referred to Benavidez as being a “legendary original gangster” – big in size – facing an inexperienced teenage boy who was 135 pounds and 5-feet, 4-inches tall.

Mitchell is being held without bail in the La Plata County jail. He has worn dress clothes each day in court. He sat quietly during closing arguments but appeared light-hearted and even smiled slightly during a break in proceedings.

Trimble argued that it was a friendly visit gone wrong as a result of Benavidez snapping because he was under the influence of methamphetamine.

“He continued his irrational meth behavior,” Trimble said about Benavidez, thus prompting Mitchell and his accomplice Elijah Anglin to fire shots in a panic.

Trimble did not, however, dispute some of the other illegal activity Mitchell was accused of, including possessing firearms and dealing drugs.

“Tommy Mitchell had the courage to take the stand,” he said.

Mitchell has taken responsibility for his actions while maintaining his innocence for theft, robbery and murder.

In response to Risberg saying certain diversions and discrepancies didn’t matter in his closing arguments, Trimble said: “It does matter, it matters a lot” and said the prosecution could not keep the truth from eventually slipping out regardless of its alleged coercions of the co-conspirators.

“We’re asking you to hold (prosecutors) to their burden,” Trimble said.

The jury, consisting of nine women and three men, listened attentively and took notes as each side presented evidence one last time. One juror’s face in particular expressed deep anguish and concern nearing the end of closing arguments.

An alternate juror was left on stand-by if needed as a fill-in.

Family members and friends of Joey Benavidez have attended the trial, sitting closely together in the courtroom gallery behind prosecutors. Mitchell’s family also attended the proceedings.

vguthrie@durangoherald.com

An earlier version of this story misstated the date of the shooting death.

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