By Mark Smith
Editor in Chief
UPDATE: Mark Smith is scheduled to be an in-studio guest of KIVA Radio’s Eddy Aragon (1600 AM) today (Nov. 10) at 4:30 p.m.
It didn’t take the jury long to find Darian Bashir guilty of first-degree murder in the killing of former Lobo baseball player Jackson Weller.
Closing arguments were made on Tuesday.
So was the verdict.
It’s a verdict that likely didn’t surprise anyone who followed the trial — or accounts of the crime during the past two years.
It’s also a verdict so many Albuquerqueans, terrified by the violent crime ripping through this once tranquil city, were relieved to see.
And maybe, just maybe, it’s a step forward.
But we all need to step in the right direction to make a real change.
And that goes for everything from dismantling idiotic Defund the Police movements to demanding the truth from our media, politicians and, yes sports fans, our athletic programs.
And helping our youth make better decisions about the dangers of this world — and this city.
QUESTION AND NO ANSWER PERIOD
The only real question at the trial was whether it was self defense, as both Bashir and his attorney, Robert Aragon, claimed, or first-degree murder, as prosecutors alleged.
The jury decided it was the latter.
Having seen the silent surveillance video of the shooting two years ago, it’s pretty hard to question the jury.
So very many questions, however, were never answered.
Not questions about the trial, mind you.
But questions why Bashir, an alleged gang member, was on the streets while awaiting trail for shooting at cops out of a moving vehicle, and what steps the city is taking to fend off violent criminals.
There are also questions about former Lobo baseball coach Ray Birmingham, his program and the coach’s version about what went down the morning of Weller’s death.
Like the question of why Weller, and some of his Lobo baseball teammates, were bar-hopping and getting into fistfights — even being booted from at least one bar — less that 12 hours before a scheduled afternoon game?
That was not a good look for a program that already had a reputation around the Nob Hill night scene for having some pretty rowdy individuals.
There’s also the seemingly simple question of how Weller was even a Lobo?
Weller never played for the Lobos. He wasn’t on scholarship and wasn’t even on the roster.
Granted, those questions aren’t important when it comes to a 23-year-old man being shot to death. But it does make a journalist ask how Weller, who was from Texas, was considered a Lobo baseball player and how he was paying for out-of-state tuition.
Questions by one journalist, at least. Yours truly.
But Birmingham — who unexpectedly retired in April and is still working with UNM in some capacity — never answered.
After the killing, Birmingham immediately went into spin mode — and remained there throughout.
And the mainstream media followed.
Birmingham did everything he could to slide safely home.
And the media laid down a perfect squeeze-play bunt for him.
Even a month after the tragedy — and after returning from Texas to visit Weller’s parents — Birmingham held a news conference, wiped away tears and explained how Weller was killed.
He said Weller had “nervously waited for months to ask this young lady out” and “it was their first date.”
He said “Jackson was in line to buy her some food before they went home. And that’s when it happened.”
Birmingham, and UNM athletic director Eddie Nuñez — who was also at the June 4, 2019 news conference — both said Weller and his date were at a late-night food stand when a fight broke out and someone pushed Weller’s date to the ground.
Weller stepped in to protect her and someone, not involved in the fight, shot him.
Birmingham said he used to call Weller “John Wayne” because of his valor.
There was no mention of bar-hopping with Lobo teammates, being booted from one or Weller starting the fight, or fights.
Enchantment Sports ran a series of stories after witnessing surveillance video of the shooting and interviewing multiple eyewitnesses who said Weller instigated fights, “got his ass whupped” and that his friends were trying to get him to go home.
Our website also posted numerous still frames from the video showing that Weller wasn’t protecting a “first date” or anyone else.
But the “John Wayne” angle was the only one the rest of the Albuquerque media took.
Our stories are back on the top of our website and you can read them on this link.
On Tuesday, I sent Birmingham a text asking if he would like to comment on the verdict or if he had time to do an interview.
“No,” was his only reply.
PREVENTION AND EDUCATION
The spike in Albuquerque’s gun violence and overall crime is frightening and infuriating.
After Weller’s killing, I wrote a column about the anger, frustration and disgust I felt from watching my hometown turn into a crime-ridden shooting gallery in recent years — and the lack of response from city leaders.
Weller’s death was a horrific tragedy.
And justice was served on Tuesday.
Weller and those other Lobo players had every legal right to be out that night and early morning.
And they didn’t even break team rules, according to Birmingham.
The coach said he didn’t have a team curfew — gameday or otherwise — even though he has made very public outcries for the need for city officials to do something about Albuquerque’s rise in violent crime.
And while Weller got into at least one fistfight and witnesses said he was drunk, he obviously didn’t deserve to be shot dead.
Especially by an alleged gang member who wasn’t even at the scene, but showed up for what prosecutors described as an execution.
And that’s the type of crime, among so many others, Albuquerqueans need to step up and scream about ending.
In no way will I throw stones from this glass laptop about a 23-year-old man being out at bars — although it’s pretty tough to condone being tossed from them and getting into fistfights.
But the most heartbreaking part, is that Weller certainly could have left the scene before Bashir arrived and gunned him down.
In fact, he did leave.
It was a tragedy that could have been avoided.
It also could have been a truly teachable moment for Birmingham, his players, the UNM athletic program and the university itself.
Instead, it was “John Wayne.”
Why not tell the entire story of the tragedy, and possibly help another athlete, student or anyone else to avoid such a horrific fate?
There have been a series of terrible incidents involving UNM athletes in recent years, but the public image issue too often takes precedent and the athletes’ missteps are seldom, if ever, called out by coaches or administrators.
At least not publicly.
When Birmingham announced in April that he would step down as Lobo coach after 14 seasons — despite his usual preseason hype about how strong his team and program’s future were — I had one immediate reaction.
“Of course he’s getting out. The Bashir trial is coming up.”
I knew Birmingham’s tall tale would be chopped down by testimony and facts in court.
By the way, there is no way his account was simply a matter of what his players told him happened.
During the two months following the killing — and after the Enchantment Sports series was published — not once did Birmingham request to watch the surveillance video, despite knowing its owners.
And indeed, there was testimony and there were facts during the trial that showed Weller wasn’t protecting anyone that tragic morning and it wasn’t the wholesome first-time date picture Birmingham painted.
There were also accusations that Weller and another UNM baseball player used racial slurs against Bashir.
Two years ago, multiple eyewitness told me that racial slurs were being thrown in both directions.
Again, not a good look for a program.
Especially one that has had less than a handful of Black players during Birmingham’s time at UNM.
Which could create even more questions, especially in this day and age.
As for my questions to Birmingham two years ago, they were never answered.
But I imagine Nuñez has asked him many of the same ones — as well as plenty more, considering some of the rumors and allegations about how Birmingham ran his program.
And maybe that answers one thing.
Why Birmingham stepped down as Lobo coach.
Now, let’s just hope this is a step-up in Albuquerque’s battle against violent crime.
Mark Smith has worked in New Mexico sports media for more than four decades, and is one of the most decorated sports journalists in state history. Smith has won more than 30 combined awards in print, television and radio and has been honored nationally for investigative reporting. He is the editor in chief of Enchantment Sports. Contact him at mark.enchantmentsportsNM@gmail.com.