Plea bargain granted
Lopez to serve 15 years for murder of Crystal Houston Balderella
Ramon Edward Lopez, sentenced to life in prison in 2007 for the 2001 rape and murder of Crystal Houston Calderella, pleaded no contest to second degree murder in a hearing at Socorro District Court Monday. Under the plea agreement made with the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office, Lopez will have to serve three more years in prison before being eligible for probation.
A no contest or nolo contendere plea is one in which the defendant does not admit nor deny guilt, but agrees to be sentenced, according to the Cornell University Law School website. “No contest” is different from a guilty plea, because a no contest plea precludes further court action, such as a civil suit.
District Judge Matt Reynolds accepted the plea bargain, and sentenced Lopez to 15 years in prison and allowed credit for the 11 years and three days he has already served.
With good conduct, Lopez will be released on parole Oct. 1, 2015. During his three years of supervised probation, he must refrain from alcohol and illegal drugs, submit to random drug tests, obtain a job or enroll in an educational program, get anger management counseling, pay restitution and avoid contact with the victim’s family. Should he violate any of the terms of his probation, Lopez will be put back in prison for the remainder of the parole term plus a one-year repeat violator enhancement.
Bernalillo District Attorney Kari Brandenburg said while she was not pleased with the no contest plea agreement, the Lopez case was not typical.
“It’s a real unusual sentence. We normally don’t ask for three years in jail, but rather zero to 15,” Brandenburg said after the hearing. She said the district attorney’s office wanted to be sure Lopez served the full 15-year sentence.
The state’s case against Lopez has been plagued with witness problems that have been exacerbated by the length of time since the crime was committed.
“It’s an 11-year-old case, which doesn’t bode well for prosecution witnesses,” she said. Besides the usual problems with witnesses’ recall, in the Lopez case, one witness has died and others have made themselves scarce.”
In 2011, the New Mexico Supreme Court threw out Lopez’s life-sentence conviction in an appeals case, saying Judge Reynolds had inappropriately allowed the jury to hear prosecution witnesses’ testimonies deemed to be hearsay.
During Monday’s hearing, the murder victim’s father, William Houston, appealed to Lopez to apologize to the young man’s mother for the shame his crimes have caused her.
When Judge Reynolds asked Lopez if he had any statements to make to the court, Lopez smiled and was heard saying to his lawyer, John McCall that he was “not going to apologize.”
McCall, speaking to the court for Lopez, said, “The no contest plea says it all. My client agrees to follow the agreement. The case has had some unusual facts. The agreement is in the best interests of my client.”
Outside of the courtroom, Joyce Fisher, the victim’s mother, said, “I’m tired of it (the case). It’s like reliving the whole thing all over again. He did it. He should pay for it.”