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.

Long legal road ends in conviction for ABQ black man swept up in federal sting

Three deputy U.S. Marshals helped Yusef Casanova change out of his dark-colored suit, striped tie and white dress shirt and fitted him with a set of handcuffs after his long legal fight ended Thursday afternoon in an Albuquerque courtroom. Hours earlier, a jury of nine women and three men had convicted the 46-year-old after a four-day trial. The jurors deliberated for less than two hours before finding Casanova guilty of distributing more than five grams of methamphetamine, illegal possession of a firearm by a felon and failure to register a sawed-off shotgun in a national database. Casanova will face 10 years or more in federal prison when Senior U.S. District Judge James Parker sentences him in about three months. Casanova plans to appeal the conviction.

NM Corrections Dept. gets interim secretary; search for permanent boss continues

A cabinet secretary for the New Mexico Department of Corrections remains one of the few holes in Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s leadership team as she approaches the end of her fourth month in office. Alisha Tafoya Lucero was named interim Corrections secretary on April 9. The first-term Democrat thought she’d filled the post in late January when she named Julie Jones, former boss of the Florida prison system. But Jones backed out in late February, citing “unexpected personal issues in my life that prevent me from being able to move to New Mexico.”

Jones would have succeeded David Jablonski, who served as Corrections secretary from November 2016 through Dec. 31, 2018, former Gov. Susana Martinez’ last day in office.

Gov vetoes probation, parole reforms — with some reluctance

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has vetoed a set of reforms to the state’s probation and parole systems that would have, among other changes, reduced the number of “technical violations” that could land someone back behind bars and required the Parole Board to detail denials for those sentenced to 30-years-to-life who are seeking release. The move comes after state Attorney General Hector Balderas and New Mexico’s 14 district attorneys pushed back against the bill in a letter to the governor as this year’s 60-day legislative session came to a close last month. The prosecutors argued that House Bill 564, if signed into law, “poses a significant public safety risk.”

Lujan Grisham’s veto message is time-stamped Thursday at 11:12 p.m.

“It’s something we’re not necessarily happy about,” Lujan Grisham’s spokesman, Tripp Stelnicki, told New Mexico In Depth Friday morning. Changes sought through the bill “will be aggressively and expeditiously addressed in the interim with the DAs and the attorney general. The governor has that full expectation.”

In her veto message, Lujan Grisham sided with HB564’s sponsors — Republican Sen. Sander Rue and Democratic representatives Antonio “Moe” Maestas and Gail Chasey — in pointing out that the prosecutors waited until after the session to complain about the bill.

Spokesman: NM Gov will sign solitary confinement reform, ‘ban the box’ bills

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham will sign a bill reforming the way solitary confinement is used in the state’s jails and prisons and another that restricts when private employers can ask job seekers about their past criminal records, her spokesman told New Mexico In Depth on Tuesday. The first-term, Democratic governor is still reviewing — in a few cases, with some consternation — a handful of other criminal justice reforms lawmakers passed during the recently concluded 60-day legislative session, said Tripp Stelnicki, Lujan Grisham’s communications director. Solitary confinement has been a heated issue in New Mexico for years, bringing multi-million-dollar lawsuit settlements and allegations of human rights abuses against inmates in the state. Four Democrats sponsored House Bill 364, defining solitary confinement as holding someone in a cell alone for 22 or more hours a day “without daily, meaningful and sustained human interaction.” Lujan Grisham’s signature will limit the instances in which state and county jailers use solitary on juveniles, people living with mental illness and pregnant women. The new law also will bring some transparency to the use of solitary.

Long sought criminal justice reforms head to Governor

Lawmakers with an eye toward righting longstanding wrongs in the state’s criminal justice system— real or perceived — achieved success this session, pushing through reforms doomed under former Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s vigilant eye as a former prosecutor. Democrats’ bolstered majority in the House, the margin they maintained in the Senate and Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s win in November set a different tone coming into the session. And the largest budget surplus in recent memory meant justice system reforms that carried a price tag were suddenly possible. Legislation aimed at reducing New Mexico’s chronically high crime rates cleared the Senate and House, too. But this year’s bills had a different feel from those avidly debated in the recent past.

Bill forcing Parole Board to explain decisions on ‘30-year lifers’ heads to governor

A set of reforms to the state’s probation and parole systems is headed to the governor’s desk, with subtle changes to how the Parole Board considers requests for freedom by people sentenced to 30-years-to life in prison. House Bill 564 passed the Senate Tuesday after tweaks from that chamber’s Judiciary Committee, then cleared the House on a concurrence vote Wednesday. Current state law forces inmates sentenced to 30-years-to life in prison to show why they should be set free. The bill appears to shift the onus between the inmate and the state. In its original form the bill would have shifted that burden entirely to the state, mandating  those inmates be paroled unless the board “makes a finding that the inmate is unable or unwilling to fulfill the obligations of a law-abiding citizen.”

The bill heading to the governor now says before paroling an inmate, the board would have to interview the inmate and “consider all pertinent information concerning the inmate.”

Another change to current law would eliminate the requirement that the board consider the “circumstances of the offense.” The revised bill requires the board to detail a finding that release is in the “best interest of society and the inmate,” conclude that the inmate is “willing to fulfill the obligations of a law-abiding citizen” and provide in writing specific support for its decision to grant or deny parole to the inmate.