ALBUQUERQUE – New Mexico prosecutors on Monday amended a complaint against a man who opened fire after a fight broke out as protesters tried to tear down a statue of a Spanish conquistador, charging him with aggravated battery with a deadly weapon after one protester was shot and injured.
Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torrez said he added the charge because he believed Steven Ray Baca had repeatedly provoked protesters before the shooting.
Torrez cited video and witness statements collected as part of an investigation into the June 15 confrontation.
“Any individual who would otherwise be able to claim self-defense cannot claim self-defense if he or she initiates a violent confrontation,” Torrez said. “It’s our belief Mr. Baca was the first aggressor in this context and the individual that he shot was acting in response to his violent provocation.”
Torrez acknowledged that it’s going to be a difficult case to present in court given the complex legal issues surrounding the allegations.
Baca’s attorneys have pointed to video showing one protester hitting Baca with a skateboard, while there were shouts in the crowd to “kill him” before he was tackled and struck.
Video taken moments earlier showed Baca throwing a woman to the ground after she positioned herself in front of him and began backing into him and blocking him with outstretched arms. Torrez noted Baca had been pushed out of the group numerous times but kept returning.
Jason Bowles, who is representing Baca, said his client had a right to defend himself.
“There are many complex issues which we will be litigating, but the bottom line is that Mr. Baca acted in lawful self-defense,” Bowles said.
Baca, who was released in June pending trial, also is facing a charge of battery for the altercation with the woman and a charge of unlawful carrying of a firearm.
Torrez also is going after an armed group of men who were at the protest. He said his office has the authority to seek an injunction to keep the New Mexico Civil Guard, a self-described civilian militia group, from acting as “an unlawful military unit” and to prohibit the group from “causing a public nuisance.”
Torrez described the effort as novel, saying his office is partnering with a local law firm and the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University Law Center to pursue the case.
Witnesses had said things started to escalate long before the shooting. The guard members were surrounding the statue of Juan de Oñate outside a city museum as protesters moved in. Protesters wrapped a chain around the statue and began tugging on it while chanting: “Tear it down.” One protester swung a pickax at the base of the statue.
The armed group had moved away by the time Baca opened fire in the street nearby.
Torrez accused the New Mexico Civil Guard of taking it upon themselves to police fellow citizens. While he said they have a right to protest and bear arms, they should not be allowed to “organize, train and operate as an unlawful group.”
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller, both Democrats, raised concerns about the group immediately after the shooting. They suggested it should be investigated as a hate group.
On Monday, the group posted on its Facebook page that elected leaders were trying to deflect criticism that police did not respond until after the shots were fired despite concerns by some in the crowd that the tension was mounting.
“By ordering police to let protesters tear down statues and destroy property they made that situation violent if one cruiser would have been there there would have been no blood on the streets that day,” the group stated.
The Albuquerque Police Department has defended its actions that day.