- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 24, 2015

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - Prosecutors will have until next summer to decide whether to seek the death penalty against a Wyoming teenager charged with a double slaying on Montana’s Crow Indian Reservation, after defense attorneys on Tuesday requested more time to argue against making it a capital case.

“The goal here is to stop this now,” said Donald Knight, a Colorado attorney specializing in the death penalty and member of the defense team. “We are looking to get all the information we can get in that time frame.”

Authorities accuse Jesus Deniz Mendoza, 18, of fatally shooting Jason and Tana Shane and wounding their daughter on July 29. The family had stopped to help Mendoza along a rural roadway near Pryor.

U.S. District Judge Susan Watters gave the defense team until early May to present their arguments against the death penalty to prosecutors.

Another of Mendoza’s attorneys, David Merchant, said during a court hearing in Billings that interviews need to be conducted with relatives of the defendant, who was born in Mexico and still has family there. He had been living in Worland, Wyoming at the time of the shootings.

Mendoza faces 12 criminal charges including two counts of first-degree murder, carjacking, attempted murder and multiple assault and firearms charges. He’s pleaded not guilty.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office now has until July 1 to say whether it intends to seek Mendoza’s death if he were convicted. That decision will be up to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch or her successor, following a review by a panel known as the Capital Review Committee.

The case landed in federal court because the U.S. Justice Department has jurisdiction over major crimes in Indian country.

Watters set a tentative Sept. 6 trial date. That date would be cancelled and likely pushed back if the U.S. Attorney’s Office pursues a death sentence.

A recommendation on the death penalty already has been submitted by prosecutors, but it could be amended if the defense provides additional information, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lori Suek said. Suek did not disclose the recommendation.

About a dozen relatives of the victims attended Tuesday’s hearing. Some expressed frustration with the months-long wait for a trial, but declined to comment further.

In a separate ruling, Watters turned down a request from prosecutors seeking a court order for the release of Mendoza’s substance-abuse treatment records.

The records sought covered past treatment, not ongoing treatment, and prosecutors said they were of “paramount interest” as they decide on the appropriate punishment to seek against Mendoza.

Mendoza’s attorneys objected, saying the information was protected under federal law and should be kept confidential. Watters agreed.

“The records could contain information that may give the government reason to pursue the death penalty,” the judge wrote in a Nov. 13 ruling. “That risk of injury to the defendant outweighs the public’s interest and need for disclosure.”

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.

Mendoza faces a separate accusation of attempted second degree murder in Washakie County, Wyoming, where authorities say he shot a man at a campground near the small town of Ten Sleep during a 2013 robbery attempt.

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