How drunk was Navarrete-Portillo?
Attorneys in the murder trial of Arturo Navarrete-Portillo, accused of killing his wife with a machete, called expert witnesses to testify about one of the defense’s key arguments: that the defendant was intoxicated beyond rationality the moment he killed his wife.
The defense is asking jurors to reject his first-degree murder charge in favor of a lesser charge.
Navarrete-Portillo killed his wife in February 2015, the public defenders acknowledge, but they’re trying to convince the jury that this was a second-degree murder “committed in a sudden heat of passion.”
The defendant also faces a child abuse charge, stemming from Navarrete-Portillo’s 6-year-old son from another relationship being in the Carbondale apartment at the time of the killing, but the sentence for that charge pales in comparison to either first- or second-degree murder.
Prosecutors have been looking to downplay Navarrete-Portillo’s intoxication on the night of the killing, trying to steer clear of the argument that he didn’t have a culpable mental state necessary for first-degree murder.
The prosecution on Monday and Tuesday highlighted Navarrete-Portillo’s rational demeanor with emergency responders.
On Tuesday morning, the prosecution called as a witness Dr. Benjamin Peery, the Valley View Hospital emergency department physician who cared for Navarrete-Portillo after he crashed his 4Runner into the back of a cattle truck.
This was just hours after he killed his wife, Maria Carminda Portillo-Amaya, and he told police later that the crash was a suicide attempt, according to documents in the case.
The prosecution focused on Peery’s experience with intoxicated patients, which he said is considerable given the county’s lack of a detox center.
The doctor discounted the usefulness of a numbered measure of alcohol concentration. He said that is a less reliable indication of intoxication than trained observations of the person’s behavior and responses.
Deputy District Attorney Matthew Barrett described this as the difference between a “alcohol-naïve” teenager and an adult alcoholic who’s built up a tolerance over years. The two might have the same blood alcohol content, but the effects may be very different.
Peery said Navarrete-Portillo, though he was in immense pain after the accident the morning of Feb. 16, 2015, was conversant, followed commands, was responsive to nurses and understood information that was communicated to him. The doctor described him as moderately intoxicated.
He had the capacity to make medical decisions, and was aware what he’d done before coming into the ER, said Peery.
Sarah Urfer, a forensic toxicologist and laboratory director at ChemaTox, a private lab in Boulder, testified as a defense expert witness.
Earlier in the case, the defense team had Urfer review reports of the alcohol content in Navarrete-Portillo’s blood. Based on the concentrations in that report, she calculated his blood alcohol content was at .237 when his blood was taken at about 7:55 a.m. at Valley View. They asked her to calculate what his BAC would have been at about 3:40 a.m. that morning, the time authorities estimate Navarrete-Portillo killed Portillo-Amaya.
Applying a calculation to estimate what an average person’s BAC would have been at that time (and assuming that Navarrete-Portillo stopped drinking after he killed his wife, which can be known only by the defendant), Urfer estimated that his BAC would have been between .290 and .310.
These BAC levels are on the upper end of what Urfer called the “confused” state of intoxication, and they’re pushing into a “stupor” level of drunkenness. According to the categorization system Urfer uses, that’s one level below “coma.”
At these levels, research shows there’s a significant impairment of the person’s ability to use reason and judgment, she said.
Prosecutor Barrett argued that the formula is a simplified calculation that leaves out many important factors, and he questioned the assumptions relied upon to arrive at that range.
In her opening statements Monday, Public Defender Molly Owens said that “intoxication and provocation overcame reason” when Portillo-Amaya had said or done something to “hurt him where she knew she would hurt him the most.”
As of about noon Tuesday, the defense had still not addressed the second part of its argument, that Portillo-Amaya had somehow provoked her husband the night of her death.
Among other developments in this trial, Judge James Boyd on Tuesday formally rejected a motion for a change of venue, which defense attorneys proposed to offset what they consider to be the prejudicial effect of media coverage.
Boyd said that despite extensive media coverage, the reporting has been factual in nature rather than commentary about the case. He said he believed the process for seating an impartial jury was carried out fairly, noting the hundreds of prospective jurors called in order to combat this very issue.
Boyd also dismissed one juror, John Smith of Silt, after Smith’s absence Tuesday morning. In addition to the 12 jurors, the trial started with four alternates.
On Monday, the judge had halted testimony to check whether Smith was paying attention. The young man had his head leaned back against the railing, almost looking asleep, and Boyd said he couldn’t tell if the court was “losing” him.
Smith called in Tuesday morning saying his vehicle’s alternator had failed, and asked that court be stalled long enough for him to buy a new alternator and have it installed, said Boyd.
No further explanation was given about his dismissal.
The trial is scheduled for another four days.
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Former Aspen Skiing Co. executive and Aspen city councilman Derek Johnson has been released from state prison and is currently residing at a halfway house.