A 24-year-old New Mexico man who was accused of raping and killing a 6-year-old girl in 2018 was found not guilty of murder on Wednesday, the Albuquerque Journal reports. Leland Hust reportedly broke down and cried in the courtroom as the jury’s decision was read following three days of deliberation. While Hust was acquitted of the first-degree murder charge in the death of Ariana Jade Romeo—who was found strangled to death in her bed by her mother in October 2018—the jury was deadlocked on child abuse and criminal sexual penetration charges. Hust, who was living in the same home as Romeo and her mother at the time of the murder, will remain in custody as prosecutors prepare to seek a new trial on the two deadlocked charges. Deputy District Attorney Jessica Martinez said they would “do a better job next time.”
Prosecutors had argued throughout the trial that Hust was the only person in the home who could not be ruled out as the killer by DNA evidence at the scene, and they also pointed to incriminating statements he’d given during questioning. But Hust’s attorneys countered that DNA did not definitively link him to the scene, and any trace amounts of DNA could be explained by the fact that he lived with the girl. They said the then-21-year-old Hust was railroaded by investigators while he was “vulnerable” under interrogation. Several other people had been living at the home at the time of the murder, and the homeowner, Winston Scates Sr., had been accused of molesting an underage female family member.