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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) – A jury on Wednesday convicted a 20-year-old of beating two homeless Navajo men to death with cinder blocks and other objects as they slept, an attack that spurred officials in New Mexico's largest city to establish a task force on Native American homelessness.
After a full day of deliberations, jurors found Alex Rios guilty of two counts of second-degree murder after hearing details about the violent attack on Allison Gorman, 44, and Kee Thompson, 46, in a vacant lot in Albuquerque in July 2014.
Each count carries a potential 15-year sentence, and prosecutors say they plan to seek the most stringent sentence possible, with the terms running consecutively instead of at the same time.
Prosecutor Vincent Martinez called the jury's verdict "just," despite having pushed for a first-degree murder conviction.
"It's been a long case," he said. "It's a good verdict."
In addition to the two murder counts, Rios faced more than two dozen charges in the attack, including aggravated assault, tampering with evidence and armed robbery.
He was found guilty on all charges except a count of attempted murder related to the beating of a man who the youngest suspect said was able to run away before the other two men in the lot were killed.
Now 16, the youngest suspect testified during Rios' jury trial, saying they and another teen began beating the men after a night of drinking at a house party. The youngest agreed to testify against the other two under a plea agreement that offers him the possibility of release at age 21.
The Associated Press is not naming him because of his age.
During questioning, he told a prosecutor that Rios had lifted a cinder block over his head before releasing it on to the ground where the victims lay. Meanwhile, the youngest boy hit one of the men in the head with a cinderblock, he said.
The victims' relatives who attended the full four days of testimony during Rios' trial wiped away tears as the 16-year-old gave a nearly moment by moment account of the attack.
The brutality of the beating and the suspects' young ages shocked law enforcement, while prompting outcry from Navajo Nation leaders.
"Justice has been served for the family and for a lot of the relatives," former Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly, who left office this year, said Wednesday. "The whole situation, it shouldn't have happened."
At the time of the beating, he said the tribe was appalled at the attack on Navajo people.
Prosecutors described the beating as grisly and unprovoked.
Attorneys didn't say during the trial that the victims were targeted because of their race.
The verdict showed jurors didn't find Rios as "culpable as the others" but held him accountable for failing to stop the attack, defense attorney Daniel Salazar said.
"He did not do all kind of things he should have done," Salazar said. "Because of his inaction, two men are dead."
Salazar had argued that prosecutors lacked physical evidence that his client participated in the attack, and Rios only witnessed it from a distance.
The youngest suspect said the attack followed a night of drinking at his older brother's house party and lasted about an hour. About 30 minutes into the attack, the three teenagers left to get knives, then returned to stab the men, he said.
The victims' family members, who attended the five-day trial, left immediately after the verdict was read and did not take questions from reporters.
"Obviously, it's awful," Salazar said. "Your heart goes out to the victims' families."