After hearing evidence for several days in a murder case in Parker, the trial judge dismissed the entire case due to a lack of evidence, chastising prosecutor Karen Hobbs in the process, dismissing the jury and letting the defendant go free.
The unusual ruling was made in response to a motion by the defendant under Rule 20, which states that the court must issue a judgment of acquittal “if there is no substantial evidence to support a conviction.” Judge Matthew Newman cut the trial short with the ruling after several days of Hobbs’ presentation of the evidence against defendant Marcos Ricardo Ruiz-Zazueta, a Mexican national charged in La Paz County last year.
Hobbs, who is running for Newman’s seat on the Superior Court bench, hasn’t had a good run lately. Less than three weeks ago, a high-profile triple homicide case was dismissed by Newman before it got to trial after he said she had been “play[ing] games with the speedy trial rules” rather than properly preparing the case. This time, Newman went as far as to suggest that a disciplinary hearing may be in order.
After he began to outline his reasons for dismissing the counts against the defendant, Newman noticed Hobbs had stood up, as though to address the court.
Newman: “Ms. Hobbs, you’re standing. Did you…?”
Hobbs: “Yes Judge, the State would ask the court to delay its ruling for 60 minutes or for 30 minutes. The reason is that the State has filed with the Court of Appeals a petition for a stay. The state would ask that the court would allow 60 or 30 minutes to see if that is resolved.”
Newman: “This court appreciates and encourages zealous advocacy, but there’s a [inaudible] constantly arguing with the court, flaunting the court’s rulings, and engaging in late disclosure tactics could well be the subject of a disciplinary proceeding. I am struggling with the decision on whether I have a duty to submit a transcript of this trial to the proper committee. The court appreciates that the State disagrees with what the court is about to do, the State definitely has a right to file any special action or any other legal proceeding it wishes to take. But that’s not going to be heard now.”
Authorities say Ruiz-Zazueta drove and Rodolfo Ballardo was riding shotgun in a blue 2008 Ford Mustang in September 2017. They were on Interstate 10 in rural La Paz County when a DPS trooper pulled them over for a routine reason, which Newman said was having blue lights on their vehicle.
“The defendant was the driver of a blue Mustang, who was pulled over for having blue lights on his car by Trooper McDonald,” Newman said in his ruling. “He yielded immediately and was contacted by the trooper. A warrant check came back clear. Ruiz was outside the car conversing with McDonald. The passenger, Mr. Bollardo, gave the trooper a false name. Becoming rightly suspicious, McDonald approached the passenger side. Incredibly and unexpectedly, Ballardo got out of the car and fired a weapon at McDonald who somehow had the presence of mind to react as quickly as he did and deflect the weapon. Trooper’s body cam was dislodged during the gunfight. It all happened very quickly, and the next time the trooper saw Ruiz he was diving out of the car onto the road. Ballardo drove off and after a series of incidents was shot and killed by the police. Ruiz began immediately asking McDonald if he was okay. Ruiz was taken into custody, cooperated fully and was placed in the back of the patrol unit.”
A car chase ended with Ballardo running on foot, allegedly breaking into a semi truck and beating the driver before stealing the truck. A shootout with cops in Quartzsite, AZ ended with Ballardo in hospital. He later died.
Ruiz-Zazueta was charged as Ballardo’s accomplice under the felony murder rule, which holds that the killing of a person occurring in the course of, or in the immediate flight from, the commission of some crimes is considered murder in the first degree. The felony murder rule was successfully prosecuted in the same courtroom in 2015 when Victor Silva was convicted in similar circumstances.
But Newman’s ruling found that there was no evidence that Ruiz-Zazueta was in the middle of committing any felony. He was charged with misconduct involving weapons, aggravated assault on a peace officer, unlawful flight from law enforcement, transportation of dangerous drugs for sale and conspiracy to transport dangerous drugs for sale, but the court found that there was no substantial evidence for any of it.
Hobbs suggested that when Bollardo exited the vehicle and shot at the trooper, Ruiz-Zazueta’s act of getting back into the car constituted an attempt to flee from law enforcement. But Newman said that was just speculation:
“As to the unlawful flight, […] it is unknown from the evidence why Ruiz returned to the car. We can speculate, but as [case law] holds, speculation concerning possibilities is not evidence for the consideration of the jury. The motion for acquittal as to unlawful flight is granted.”
With respect to drugs, Newman said, “There were no drugs located on Bollardo, Ruiz or in the car. Yesterday the state agreed that the Rule 20 motion as to that count should be granted.”
Newman concluded by saying, “All charges having been dismissed, Mr. Zazueta will be immediately released from custody, if he’s not held for any other reasons. Mr. Welch and Ms. Quickle are released as counsel of record if they want to be.”
He then gave Hobbs the chance to speak on behalf of any special action she wanted to take in the wake of the case’s dismissal.
“Judge, the only record is there is no possible special action, no possible appeal after the court has acquitted, according to Rule 20,” she responded. “The state has no redress and will do absolutely nothing. We’re done, this is it. Thank you sir.”
Newman: “Again, that’s up to you, and what the law says.”
Hobbs: “Yes sir.”
When the jury came back into the courtroom, they got the surprising news.
Newman: “Ladies and gentlemen, the State rested their case. At that time the court has a duty to follow what’s called the motions for directed verdict, which the court must grant if the court is of the opinion that the evidence presented by the state is insufficient to support a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt. This court has done that. All charges against the defendant have been dismissed, you are released from jury duty with our great thanks, you are released from the admonition.”
Two candidates running for Newman’s seat were involved in this trial, with Hobbs as prosecutor and Jessica Quickle as an attorney for the defense, along with Fred Welch. Hobbs and Quickle are both on the ballot in next month’s election for Superior Court Judge. Newman announced his intention to retire earlier this year.