A sign at Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico. Photo: Jay Peeples

Pueblo man convicted of brutal murder turned away by Supreme Court

A Jemez Pueblo man who was convicted of murdering a woman from the Navajo Nation will remain behind bars after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected his appeal.

Gavin Yepa, 33, was sentenced to life in prison for the brutal rape and murder of Lynette Yazzie Becenti. The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed his conviction in a unanimous decision last July, noting that he gave "self-incriminating" statements during a search of his home on the reservation, where the crime occurred.

"What is striking from the recording is that defendant’s incriminating statements are scattered throughout, without any apparent connection to what is going on at the time, and that the officers are focused on performing their search, rarely reacting in any way to what defendant says about the offense," Judge Harris L Hartz wrote in the 16-page decision.

Yepa then petitioned the Supreme Court to hear his case, questioning whether the statements he made during the interrogation should have been admitted into evidence. The Department of Justice, representing the United States, opposed review of the matter.

According to the government, "overwhelming evidence" presented at trial established Yepa's guilt, a February 7 brief stated.

The Supreme Court apparently agreed with that assessment. Though no explanation was provided, the justices denied Yepa's petition in an order list on Monday.

Yepa was prosecuted by the federal government as part of a Tribal Special Assistant U.S. Attorney project in New Mexico. The program was established to address the "epidemic" of violence against Native women -- data shows Native women are victimized at rates far higher any any other racial or ethnic group.

“No one in this country deserves to be a victim of violence," Terry Wade, the Special Agent in Charge of the FBI's office in Albuquerque, New Mexico, said at the time of Yepa's sentencing. "Unfortunately, violence in our Native American communities ravages families, harming mothers, daughters and sisters. They and their loved ones depend on us for justice."

Becenti was 38 years old at the time of her murder in December 2011. She died as a result of a severe wound she sustained when Yepa sexually assaulted her, according to an autopsy presented in court.

Justice Neil Gorsuch, the newest member of the Supreme Court, did not participate in the handling of Yepa's petition, according to Monday's order list. While he served on the 10th Circuit, Gorsuch participated in one of Yepa's appeals, which resulted in the exclusion of a 911 call made by Becenti in which she asked for help because she was being raped.

The recording was submitted too late by federal prosecutors so a judge excluded it from the trial, which took place in July 25 through August 7, 2015. Witnesses would have testified that they heard Yepa's voice on the call.

Yepa is being held at Tucson USP in Arizona, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. His release date is "LIFE."

10th Circuit Court of Appeals Decision:
U.S. v. Yepa (July 17, 2017)

Prior 10th Circuit Decisions:
US v. Yepa (June 17, 2015)
US v. Yepa (July 16, 2014)

Relevant Documents:
2012 Press Release | Complaint: US v. Yepa

Join the Conversation

Related Stories
Pueblo man goes on trial for brutal murder of Navajo woman (July 30, 2015)
Pueblo man charged in connection with woman's brutal death (February 7, 2012)