Judge denies motion for a mistrial in Moreno case after witness statement

Published 5:21 am Friday, March 8, 2024

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

A Freeborn County District Court Judge on Thursday denied a motion for a mistrial from the lawyer for  murder suspect Ben Moreno after a witness told the jury Moreno had previously spent time in prison during cross examination.

Though lawyer Andrew Leone objected to witness Kevin Stiller’s statement and Judge Christy Hormann immediately told the jury to disregard the statement, Leone said he thought there had been irreparable harm done by the statement and that it greatly prejudices his client.

Moreno faces five counts, including two counts of second-degree murder in the death of Juan Vasquez Jr., one count of attempted second-degree murder of Marco Posada, who was with Vasquez that day, and two counts of ineligible possession of a firearm.

Email newsletter signup

“That’s a pretty damning statement,” Leone said.

Assistant Minnesota Attorney General John Gross argued that the statement came during cross examination after a broad question was asked. Leone had asked Stiller how well he knew Moreno.

Gross said he thought the court appropriately handled the situation and that the jury was already aware that the case involves things like drugs and guns. He said he thought the damage was minimal.

He referenced two prior similar cases in which the Supreme Court indicated jurors are presumed to follow instructions given by the judge.

Hormann referenced a different case in her response and said she did not believe there was a reasonable probability that the statement would change the outcome of the jury’s decision.

She also noted that after Stiller’s statement was given, she immediately gave curative instructions to disregard the statement and said it was an isolated single reference.

She did not think it rose to the level of something to declare a mistrial.

Stiller, who lived in Austin in August 2022 at the time of the shooting, said he had met Moreno two times. The first time, through an acquaintance, Moreno changed his oil in Stiller’s driveway.

The second time was the day before the shooting at a man’s house who Stiller helped as a PCA doing daily chores and self care.

Stiller said he received a call between 11 p.m. and midnight from the man, Larry Wilson, who was about to do a business deal with Moreno, and he asked him to sit in on it, too.

Stiller said he had never known Vasquez and that the only things he knew were what he heard from Moreno that night. He said Moreno brought up Vasquez several times.

Stiller said Moreno made it seem like Vasquez was such a hostile individual that he would have to use fatal force to resolve their differences. He made several comments about shooting him to death.

When asked by Gross what the business transaction was for, Stiller said Wilson was buying meth from Moreno. He said it later came to him that the meth had been stolen from Vasquez.

“I believe he wasn’t kidding about needing to take force on the matter,” Stiller said.

It also stuck out to him about the conversation that Moreno said Vasquez would “sell anyone down the river for a bag of dope.”

Stiller said after the business deal, he stayed at the other man’s house until about 4 a.m. and then returned the next day at 9 or 10 a.m. He recalled Wilson receiving a phone call from Moreno the next day and he turned “white as a ghost” after he found out Vasquez was killed.