HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Federal prosecutors may seek the death penalty for an 18-year-old man charged in the deaths of a husband and wife who authorities say stopped to offer him help on the side of the road on Montana's Crow Indian Reservation.
A new grand jury indictment filed Friday includes death as a possible punishment if Jesus Deniz Mendoza of Worland, Wyoming, is convicted of two counts of first-degree murder, carjacking that resulted in death or use of a firearm during crimes of violence.
The original indictment filed Aug. 6 sought life in prison for the shooting deaths of 51-year-old Jason Shane and 47-year-old Tana Shane on July 26 in the town of Pryor. The original charges also included three counts of assault against Deniz for allegedly wounding the Shanes' daughter, 26-year-old Jorah Shane, who was trying to run away.
Investigators say the family stopped to help a man who claimed to be having car trouble. They say Deniz demanded money and opened fire after they said they had none.
The new indictment adds seven new charges, including five firearms crimes, on top of the murder and assault charges against Deniz.
Neither U.S. Attorney Office spokesman Kris McLean nor federal public defender David Merchant responded to requests for comment.
Death Penalty Information Center executive director Robert Dunham said it is still early in the case to determine whether prosecutors will actually pursue the death penalty against Deniz, but they have preserved that option by filing the new indictment.
Deniz's public defenders will have the opportunity to make arguments against pursuing the death penalty if prosecutors indicate they intend to go that route, he said.
"If they go capital, that will greatly increase the costs," Dunham said. "You're looking at several million dollars and several years for a pre-trial investigation."
Prosecutors already have asked U.S. District Judge Susan Watters to vacate the trial date set for Oct. 5, "given the procedures attendant to a death penalty case," according to a court filing by Assistant U.S. Attorney Lori Suek. Prosecutors instead are asking Watters to rule that the "ends of justice" outweigh the need for a speedy trial.
The judge has set a conference for Wednesday to create a new case schedule, followed by Deniz's arraignment on the new charges.
The Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that studies death penalty issues, counts 62 people currently on federal death row, none of them for crimes committed in Montana. The most recent addition is Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was convicted earlier this year in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.
Thirty-seven people on federal death row have been executed since 1927, most recently in 2003, when Louis Jones Jr. was killed by lethal injection for the kidnapping and murder of a 19-year-old U.S. Army private.
In Montana's judicial system, the last inmate executed was David Dawson in 2006 for killing three members of a Billings family. Montana's two current death row inmates are suing the state over its lethal injection protocols.
Lawmakers have rejected attempts to repeal Montana's death penalty, most recently in February when a measure failed to pass the state House in a 50-50 tie vote.
This story has been clarified to show federal prosecutors might seek the death penalty, not are seeking the death penalty.