NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – The trial for a man accused of raping and killing a six-year-old Rio Rancho girl is underway. Prosecutors say DNA evidence proves Leland Hust murdered Ariana Jade Romeo. The defense says police forced Hust to believe he had committed the crime.
The girls mother, Stephanie Romeo, was the first to testify Wednesday and recalled the moment she found her daughter’s body. Ariana’s body was found August 2018, naked from the waist down and bloody in the Rio Rancho home she shared with her mother, Hust and at least six other people.
An autopsy showed she had been strangled. Wednesday in court prosecutors showed the girl’s lifeless body when police arrived. Hust got emotional when they described the scene.
Rio Rancho police took DNA from everyone in the home at the time. Hust, who was 21, was then arrested after police say DNA found on the girl’s body matched his. They say he was also the last person to see the girl alive. During testimony Wednesday afternoon, they played a recorded jail call between Hust and Ariana’s mother.
The defense says Hust was young and vulnerable. They also say police interrogated him for hours, starting off nice and then getting aggressive. The defense argue that police ultimately made Hust question whether he had killed Ariana. They also said DNA could have been transferred from things Hust and Ariana shared in the home.
The judge expects the trial to last seven to ten days. The trial was also moved to Valencia County after Hust’s attorney said media coverage would prevent him from getting a fair trial in Sandoval County.