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October 22, 2019

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Immigrant appeals Nevada murder case to state Supreme Court

Wilber

Scott Sonner / AP

Wilber Ernesto Martinez-Guzman, 19, of El Salvador, is escorted into the courtroom for his initial appearance in Carson City Justice Court, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019, in Carson City. Martinez-Guzman was arraigned on 36 felonies, including two dozen weapon charges. He’s a suspect in a series of four homicides in Reno and south of Carson City in rural Gardnerville.

RENO — Lawyers for a 20-year-old Salvadoran immigrant accused of killing four northern Nevadans are asking the state Supreme Court to overturn a judge's ruling upholding a grand jury's authority to indict him in Reno for two of the fatal shootings outside the county.

Public defenders for Wilber Ernesto Martinez-Guzman want the high court to dismiss two counts each of murder with a deadly weapon and burglary while in possession of a firearm in the January deaths of Connie Koontz and Sophia Renken in Douglas County south of Carson City.

They say a Washoe County grand jury exceeded its jurisdictional powers when it indicted him in March on four murder charges following a weeklong killing rampage that ended with the shooting of an elderly couple in Reno.

Washoe District Court Judge Connie Steinheimer rejected that argument last month, siding with prosecutors who insist all Nevada grand juries enjoy statewide jurisdiction in cases involving felonies.

District Attorneys Chris Hicks of Washoe County and Mark Jackson of Douglas County announced shortly after Martinez-Guzman's arrest they intended to co-prosecute all the charges in the 10-count indictment and that they'd be seeking the death penalty. The trial isn't scheduled to begin until April.

Federal officials have said Martinez-Guzman is in the U.S. illegally, but they don't know how or when he crossed the Mexico border. The case has drawn the attention of President Donald Trump, who says it shows the need for a border wall.

A detective testified before the grand jury that Martinez-Guzman told her during an interrogation at the Washoe County Jail that he robbed and killed his elderly victims because he needed money to buy methamphetamine.

Prosecutors argue the crimes are linked because Martinez-Guzman shot all four victims with a gun he stole from the Reno victims who he had worked for last summer as a landscaper, Gerry and Sherri David.

"The facts of this case are so intertwined that his possession of the firearm was an act requisite to consummation of the crimes in Douglas County," Jackson said earlier.

The defense appeal filed with the Nevada Supreme Court earlier this month argues that judges can hold court in any county of the state, but grand juries cannot return indictments outside their county.

"A county grand jury was never intended to serve as a roving commission inquiring into statewide crimes," Washoe County Chief Public Defender John Arrascada and Chief Deputy John Reese Petty wrote July 1. "The Washoe County grand jury exceeded its power by returning a true bill on four felony counts that are alleged to have been committed solely in Douglas County."

Michelle Bays, spokeswoman for the Washoe County District's Attorney Office, said Thursday they anticipated the defense would appeal Steinheimer's ruling and that prosecutors will be filing a formal response soon with the Nevada Supreme Court. A status hearing on the case is scheduled in Washoe District Court on July 29.