In the early hours of March 22, 2006 Deputy James McGrane was murdered during a traffic stop in the East Mountain area of Bernalillo County.
The license plate number given to the dispatch operator by Deputy McGrane was registered to a Dodge truck owned by Michael Astorga.
However a witness described the truck at the scene as white, non-diesel, and battered with a lot of wear and tear, whereas the Dodge truck owned by Astorga was gold, diesel and in almost excellent condition. Moreover, although the deputy was shot 6 to 9 inches from the truck, and apparently run over, no forensic trace on Astorga’s truck ( blood, DNA ) was found.
In addition, when Astorga’s truck was discovered, the plate had been removed, and was in the driver’s cab, suggesting that an unknown criminal may have used the plate while carrying out some crime, so that if the vehicle was seen Astorga would be blamed. ( Note: in New Mexico vehicles only have a single rear plate ).
David Garcia testified that he was with Astorga the day of the shooting. He told the jury they went to Astorga’s East Mountain trailer late in the afternoon, then returned to Albuquerque before 10 p.m. that night in Astorga’s purple Jeep, and he was dropped off at his mother’s house.
Astorga was driving the purple Jeep as he made a living buying and selling vehicles from auction. Astorga was in Albuquerque all day driving around in the purple Jeep because he was going to sell it to his wife’s co-workers at the time.
Danielle Lyon said Astorga worked for her brother-in-law in the past. She told the jury that on the night McGrane was killed, she and her husband went to tattoo artist Martin Saiz’s house so her husband could get a tattoo. She told the jury that Astorga arrived about 10 p.m. with food and stayed through most of the night.
Her husband and Martin Saiz confirmed Astorga’s whereabouts at the time of the crime also.
Nevertheless, after considerable adverse pre-trial publicity ( a defense request for a change of venue was denied), Astorga was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
There was a separate penalty-phase trial, at which the State sought the death penalty. At this trial, the jury stated that not all jurors agreed on Astorga’s guilt.