BernCo DA: New Mexico AG should review questionable police shootings

Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torrez says he’s done waiting for a so-called “DA panel” to determine whether the Albuquerque police officer who killed 19-year-old Mary Hawkes in 2014 should be prosecuted. 2nd Judicial District Attorney Raul Torrez / Credit: Courtesy of Office of the 2nd Judicial District Attorney

Instead, the first-term, Democratic DA in New Mexico’s most populous district wants the state’s highest-ranking law enforcement officer to decide. He has referred the case to state Attorney General Hector Balderas, according to a letter he sent to the Hawkes family’s legal team, which was obtained by New Mexico In Depth and the Santa Fe Reporter on Friday. 

And according to the letter, the Hawkes case is just the first. Going forward, he intends to refer all police shooting cases to the AG for a second look if his special prosecutors return recommendations that no charges be filed against the shooting officer. Not so fast, says Matt Baca, Balderas’ spokesman and general counsel.

NM system for reviewing police shootings remains broken

Elizabeth Palma and her son, Anthony Benavidez, loved trips to the cinema. In early 2017 they enjoyed Disney’s live-action remake of “Cinderella” together. It would be their last movie. Months later, Benavidez, 24, lay fatally wounded by police in a Santa Fe apartment that bore the marks of his isolating schizophrenia: walls painted black, aluminum foil covering a bedroom window, heavy blinds draped over another. City officials paid his family $400,000 to settle a civil lawsuit after the killing.

Santa Fe DA promises special prosecutor for fatal 2017 police shooting

District Attorney Marco Serna says he will appoint a special prosecutor to review “additional information” in a 2017 police shooting that killed a 24-year-old man who was living with schizophrenia in his southeast Santa Fe apartment. The move marks a change for Serna, who accepted the conclusion of a panel of three DAs — from Albuquerque, Clovis and Las Vegas, New Mexico — in early 2018 that the two Santa Fe Police officers who fired should not be criminally prosecuted for the killing. Serna’s decision means one of the most controversial police shootings in recent Santa Fe history will get a second look. In March, when Serna announced that the panel had concluded no charges should be filed against officers Jeramie Bisagna and Luke Wakefield, Serna’s spokesman said the first-term Democratic prosecutor who is now running for Congress would adopt the panel’s findings. By that time the family had agreed to accept a $400,000 settlement with the city of Santa Fe in a wrongful death lawsuit.

Secrecy at NM federal court appears unchanged

A longstanding culture of secrecy in New Mexico’s federal courts appears unchanged after a pair of New Mexico In Depth stories exposed it last fall and one of the state’s leading government transparency advocates called for change. We’re using the word “appears” because neither the court nor the big, publicly funded and mandated law firms that practice there every day have answered NMID’s questions for this story yet. (After our inquiries, the court clerk said the chief judge has agreed to an interview in a couple weeks.) 

But using a court records searching trick we learned last year, NMID did a little spot checking to see how much access the public has in cases where people’s freedom is nearly always on the line. The picture doesn’t look any better than last year. More on that later.

Agreement on NM probation, parole reforms seems stuck in the mud

Lawmakers and prosecutors appear as far apart as ever on reform proposals for New Mexico’s probation and parole systems, despite Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham admonishing them to find common ground in April. That’s when the first-term Democratic governor vetoed a reform bill — with significant consternation — that would have shifted the systems away from incarceration as a first resort and likely seen significantly fewer people returning to prison and jail. 

The disagreements center largely on who should be locked back up for violating their probation and who should not, and a change that would have required the Parole Board to issue detailed, written findings when it denies someone’s release after 30 years behind bars. If changes favored by legislators become law, potentially thousands of people in New Mexico who are currently locked up would remain under state supervision, but not behind bars. It could burden the justice system, creating the need for new jobs and monitoring mechanisms, but also save the public millions in lock-up costs, legislative analysts say. Lawmakers have pushed the changes because they say a shift toward rehabilitation and providing services to lower-level offenders can help them turn their lives around and stay out of the justice system.

No Epstein Indictment Here, For Now

Aerial image of the house and helicopter pad on Zorro Ranch. Investigators with the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office plan to turn over any information they gather about alleged sex crimes committed here by Jeffrey Epstein to federal prosecutors “as soon as possible,” a spokesman for the AG says. That means, for now, Attorney General Hector Balderas’ team is working as fact-gatherer for the US Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York, where Epstein pleaded not guilty last week to charges of sex trafficking of minors and sex trafficking conspiracy, says Matt Baca, senior counsel for Balderas’ office. “At this point it’s primarily been communication between the two offices,” Baca tells Santa Fe Reporter and New Mexico In Depth on Wednesday. “As soon as we’re done, or at a place where we feel like we have significant investigative materials to turn over to them, we plan to do that.”

He says the AG isn’t working on an indictment here, but noted “nothing is off the table in terms of possible state-level charges.”

Baca confirms that “two or more” women have told prosecutors in New Mexico they are victims of Epstein, who owns the massive Zorro Ranch in southern Santa Fe County.

Children and pregnant women no longer allowed in solitary confinement in NM

A long-sought set of reforms to the way New Mexico jailers and prison officials use solitary confinement kicked in July 1, barring the practice for certain populations and starting the clock on what civil rights advocates and lawmakers hope will lead to unprecedented transparency on the controversial practice in the state. Effectively immediately, pregnant women and children can no longer be held in solitary, and beginning in November prisons and jails around the state will start publicly reporting how many people are being held in solitary. Insufficient data has for years frustrated lawmakers’ and others’ ability to understand the scale at which solitary confinement is used in the state’s jails and prisons. 

State Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, co-sponsor of  House Bill 364 during the legislative session that concluded in March, sent a letter to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration and officials who run the 33 county jails across New Mexico, reminding them of the new statute’s requirements. Among the changes is the state’s first universal definition for solitary confinement: holding someone in a cell alone for 22 or more hours a day “without daily, meaningful and sustained human interaction.”

Previously, jails and prisons were using a patchwork set of labels and standards to categorize solitary confinement, often frustrating lawmakers’ and others’ efforts to snap a true picture of how the tactic was used in New Mexico. The measure required prisons and jails to stop keeping children and pregnant women in solitary — except in extremely rare instances — on July 1.

DA with six-figure salary claims poverty, judge grants her free lawyer (updated)

Editor’s note:New Mexico Chief Public Defender Bennet Baur told NMID reporter Jeff Proctor during an interview in late June that he knew nothing about a public defender being appointed for southern New Mexico district attorney Francesca Estevez. On Monday evening, Baur emailed to say, in fact, his office had hired a private attorney, Keren Fenderson, to file a motion on Estevez’s behalf without informing Estevez. In a telephone interview Tuesday, Baur confirmed that he was unaware of the arrangement at the time of the interview with Proctor. Francesca Estevez is too poor to pay for a lawyer. That’s according to state District Judge Douglas Driggers of Las Cruces, who made the finding in a May 1 court order appointing the public defender’s office to represent Estevez as prosecutors pursue alleged violations of the Government Misconduct Act against her.

Police Watchdog raises concerns over State Police ‘Surge’ in ABQ

A member of Albuquerque’s official police watchdog group is questioning the tactics and results of the recent “Metro Surge Operation,” in which 50 New Mexico State Police officers flooded the city ostensibly to help fight violent crime. “This is the perfect atmosphere, the perfect storm for civil rights violations, and it completely undermines the serious energy people have invested in police reform in Albuquerque,” Chelsea Van Deventer of the Albuquerque Police Oversight Board told New Mexico In Depth earlier this week. Homicides and non-fatal shootings have gone up in Albuquerque in recent months, including the high-profile murder of a University of New Mexico baseball player outside a Nob Hill bar last month. In response, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Mayor Tim Keller, both Democrats, agreed on the “surge,” with Keller’s office saying publicly the operation would focus on “targeting violent crime in Albuquerque.”

The results, according to a KOAT-TV story, have not matched the stated goal. The station reported 452 arrests by State Police during the operation; 300 people were arrested on suspicion of misdemeanor crimes.