Update: Murder convictions upheld in GF drug slayingBISMARCK, N.D. — North Dakota's Supreme Court has rejected arguments from two murder convicts that they deserved a second trial because they were ordered to wear leg shackles during their first one.
By: By Dale Wetzel, The Associated Press, The Jamestown Sun
BISMARCK, N.D. — North Dakota's Supreme Court has rejected arguments from two murder convicts that they deserved a second trial because they were ordered to wear leg shackles during their first one.
Joseph Moncada and Billy Aguero were found guilty of murder and conspiracy in the September 2001 slayings of Robert Belgarde, 40, and his son Damien, 19, in what authorities described as an argument over a drug debt.
The Belgardes were shot to death about five miles southwest of Grand Forks. According to trial testimony, Robert Belgarde was shot four times and struck in the head with a beer bottle, while his son was shot seven times.
Damien Belgarde had been trying to buy methamphetamine before the slayings and had arranged to meet Moncada in the parking lot of a Grand Forks grocery store, according to trial testimony.
A jury convicted Moncada, who is now 28, and the 32-year-old Aguero in June 2009, almost a year after they were charged with the murders. They are both serving life prison terms without the possibility of parole.
Attorneys for both men argued in court filings that they had worn leg shackles during their trial, and that jurors who saw them may have been more likely to believe the allegations against them.
Defense attorneys used boxes to block jurors’ view of their clients’ legs, but Moncada's lawyer, Robert W. Martin, said at least two jurors could still see beneath the table at which the two defendants sat.
Moncada also protested what he said were unreasonable delays in holding his trial, and Aguero objected to a statement by Larry Hoffman, a Grand Forks County sheriff's investigator, that Aguero had declined to answer a question about whether he and Moncada had met with the Belgardes the night they were killed.
The Supreme Court unanimously upheld the convictions Tuesday, although the court's ruling resulted in three separate opinions about the shackling issue.
All five justices concluded that even though the trial judge, Lawrence Jahnke, did not specifically outline his reasons for ordering shackles, the mistake was harmless because there was ample evidence for jurors to convict Aguero and Moncada.