A 24-year-old New Mexico man may spend the rest of his life behind bars for raping and killing a 6-year-old girl in her Rio Rancho home in 2018. A jury in Sandoval County on Friday found Leland Hust guilty on one count of intentional abuse of a child under age 12 resulting in death and one count of aggravated criminal sexual penetration of a child under 13 years of age, prosecutors announced.
Under New Mexico state law, the abuse resulting in death charge results in a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 30 years while the sexual penetration charge has a mandatory minimum sentence of 18 years.
The jury’s verdict put an end to Hust’s second trial in connection with the rape and killing of young Ariana “Jade” Romero. Officers with the Rio Rancho Police Department in October 2018 arrested a then-21-year-old Hust in connection with Jade’s death. A jury last June deliberated for 17 hours over three days before finding Hust not guilty on one count of first-degree murder in Jade’s strangulation slaying, the Albuquerque Journal reported. However, jurors were reportedly remained hung on the remaining charges and prosecutors vowed to pursue a second trial.
This time around, it reportedly took the jury just six hours to find Hust guilty on both charges.
After the jury foreman read the verdict Friday evening, Hust reportedly put his head down on the table in front of him and cried, according to the Albuquerque Journal. After being escorted out of the courtroom by sheriff’s deputies, Hust could reportedly be heard “wailing” in the building.
District Attorney for New Mexico’s 13th Judicial District Barbara Romo praised the verdict in a brief statement given to the newspaper.
“I’m happy that Stephanie can have some closure and little Jade can rest in peace now,” Romo reportedly said. “You can’t give up on a 6-year-old girl who was brutally raped and murdered.”
Chief District Court Judge George Eichwald did not set a sentencing date, the county clerk’s office told Law&Crime.
Jade’s mother, Stephanie Romero, reportedly found her daughter dead in the bedroom they shared on the morning of Oct. 11, 2018. Romero and her daughter had reportedly been temporarily staying in a converted garage attached to a home they shared with Hust and seven others. Romero reportedly came home from working her shift at a bar in Rio Rancho at approximately 3 a.m. and got into bed next to her daughter, who she thought was sleeping. It wasn’t until the next morning that she looked over and saw that Jade, bloody and half-naked, was dead, per the Journal.
During the trial, prosecutors reportedly argued that Hust, whose room was close to the garage, was “obsessed” with Jade. According to the Journal, they argued that Romero had recently found a new apartment and was planning on moving out of the garage when Jade was killed. Prosecutors argued that Hust knew Romero was would be at work until late into the night and knew it could be his final opportunity to take advantage of the little girl being unaccompanied in the garage.
Hust’s attorney, public defender Graham Dumas, reportedly argued that investigators had “tunnel vision” and focused exclusively on Hust despite the fact that homeowner Winston Scates Sr. in 2019 was convicted of felony contact with a minor. Scates reportedly groped a juvenile female family member. Dumas also emphasized that investigators found no evidence of Jade’s DNA in Leland’s room.
The New Mexico Public Defender’s Office did not immediately respond to a message to Dumas from Law&Crime regarding the verdict and any plans to appeal.
Assistant District Attorney Neil Carson reportedly told jurors that Hust was the only member of the household whom investigators could not eliminate as being a contributor to DNA found on Jade’s body. That DNA reportedly excluded Scates as a possible suspect. Hust also reportedly made “incriminating” statements during interviews with detectives, though Dumas reportedly claimed those statements were coerced.
“We’re happy that Jade was able to find justice,” Chief Deputy District Attorney Jessica Martinez reportedly told Albuquerque CBS/Fox affiliate KRQE after the proceeding.
Hust faces a maximum possible sentence of life in prison for the abuse resulting in death conviction.
[image via Sandoval County]
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