Judge disqualified after he revealed potential conflict
A Fourth District Court judge has been disqualified from presiding over a murder trial in Wasatch County after disclosing a potential conflict of interest.
Wasatch County residents Antonio Vasquez-Pelaez, 55, and 19-year-old Cunny Antonio Pelaez each face first-degree murder charges and weapons charges in the killing of Aniceto Armendariz, a local community leader who was gunned down Sept. 25 on U.S. 40.
After preliminary hearings were scheduled for the suspects Dec. 13, Fourth District Court Judge Derek Pullan revealed Dec. 7 that he had a connection to Armendariz’s family and recused himself from the bench. Fourth District Court Judge Samuel McVey, from Utah County, replaced Pullan.
"Judge Pullan indicated that he was now remembering that the victim’s daughter used to play in his home. That would raise appeal issues somewhere down the road," said Bruce Savage, Cunny Pelaez’s attorney. "Both defendants elected to pursue a recusal."
According to court papers, "[Armendariz’s] home is within close physical proximity to [Pullan’s] personal residence."
Pullan, a former Wasatch County attorney, also worked with Armendariz during the establishment of a racial and ethnic fairness commission in the area, court documents state. Armendariz was a prominent figure in the Latino community and a deacon at Holy Cross Ministries in Heber and St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Summit County.
According to documents filed by Wasatch County Attorney Thomas Low, Pullan had not presided over the matter in "any substantial way" before he declared the conflict.
"However, in a complicated and serious case & the appearance of a close association between [Pullan] and the victim or the victim’s family, can create an extra level of unnecessary scrutiny in the process," Low’s motion states. The development has allowed Low more time to develop a motive for the killing after Pullan denied his request in November for 90 days to prepare for the preliminary hearing.
"Somebody knows why this happened," Low told The Park Record before the defendants appeared in court Nov. 4. Investigators say Armendariz died after he was shot with a shotgun while driving eastbound with his wife, Alma, near the Mayflower exit on U.S. 40. The man died at the scene after he lost control of his truck. The vehicle rolled seven times after he was shot in the head. Alma Armendariz was not available for comment before press time. Low claims the defendants were in a van that collided with Armendariz’s truck. The suspects were captured at the Lodge at Stillwater while trying to hide from police.
On Jan. 11, Low must provide evidence that it is "reasonable to believe" these alleged crimes occurred and the defendants committed the crimes, Savage said.
"A preliminary hearing does not test whether the allegation is true or not," he added.
Savage is working closely with co-counsel Dana Facemyer to defend the two suspects. The men have requested Low turn over ballistics reports on a shotgun, toxicology reports on the defendants and statements from various individuals including Alma Armendariz.
They want to review calls made on several cellular telephones and photographs that allegedly show bullet marks on Armendariz’s vehicle, court documents state.
The defense has also reportedly requested copies of photographs taken of Cunny Pelaez’s shoes, and surveillance footage that shows Armendariz entering a Chevron station the night of the killing.
The suspects, who are undocumented immigrants and banned from carrying firearms, are reportedly father and son. They were each being held in the Wasatch County Jail Friday on $100,000 cash bail.
Low says Armendariz was "despised" by criminals in his work as a deacon. Investigators claim he knew at least one of the murder suspects. A first-degree felony conviction could carry a penalty of five years to life in prison and a $10,000 fine. An amended charge of aggravated murder is punishable by a life sentence without parole and capital murder could result in execution.
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