Commissioners for New Mexico’s fourth largest county on Thursday asked a judge to release non-violent jail inmates “during the State of Emergency caused by the COVID-19 virus,” New Mexico In Depth has learned. Sandoval County Attorney Robin Hammer on Thursday filed a three-page petition for writ of mandamus — a fast-tracking procedure used in exceptional circumstances — asking the District Court to blunt the “serious health risk” of the new coronavirus to those inside the jail by releasing people immediately. Hammer’s petition also asks the court to prohibit future bookings of anyone else charged with a misdemeanor or non-violent felony into the detention center until Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham lifts her State of Emergency declaration. The petition is set to be heard Tuesday by Chief District Judge George Eichwald. The move marks the first time a voice from outside New Mexico’s criminal defense community has called for releasing inmates amid the growing COVID-19 crisis.
A legislative effort to reform parts of New Mexico’s probation and parole systems is limping along as lawmakers near the halfway mark of this year’s 30-day session. House Bill 263, with a large group of sponsors from both parties, is meant primarily to decrease the number of people on probation and parole who are sent back to jail or prison for relatively minor infractions, so-called “technical violations.” Those include some failed drug tests and missing appointments with a probation or parole officer. If passed and signed, the measure would mark the beginning of a shift for the Corrections Department’s Probation and Parole Division — from a punitive approach to a more restorative philosophy.
That means helping people address the underlying issues that keep them in the criminal justice system instead of trying to ensure public safety with jail cells — particularly when considering people who commit lesser offenses.
That core purpose of the bill has remained intact over the past year, as legislators have worked on a “compromise” version with state prosecutors and others following a dust-up over the proposed reforms after last year’s legislative session. The state House and Senate passed a broader set of changes in 2019, but they met Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s veto pen after Attorney General Hector Balderas and all 14 of New Mexico’s district attorneys sent her a letter outlined fatal problems as they saw them. In her veto message, Lujan Grisham asked sponsors to meet with the prosecutors and iron out their differences.
Nearly half of the people in New Mexico’s state prisons are infected with hepatitis C, and for years, the Corrections Department has only purchased enough medicine to treat a fraction of them. But that may be about to change. The executive budget proposal Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham released Jan. 6 recommends $30 million in new funding for the Corrections Department for treatment of hepatitis C, with the expectation of curing most inmates by the end of 2024. This parallels an expansion of treatment taking place in other prison systems across the country, and would eliminate a focal point of New Mexico’s epidemic.It appears the money will pass muster with state lawmakers.
A state senator says she’ll push for laws in the coming years to answer a long-troubling question in New Mexico: does the criminal justice system here disproportionately target non-white people? Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, an Albuquerque Democrat and former law professor, tells New Mexico In Depth she was “stunned” to learn during this year’s legislative session, her first in the Senate, that few agencies collect or share data on the race and ethnicity of people caught up in the system. “I thought, how was I not aware of this?,” she said in an interview this week. “It was really weird.”
Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque
So Sedillo Lopez is working up a memorial she plans to introduce at the 2020 session, which begins in January, directing the New Mexico Sentencing Commission to study how — and whether — the state’s jails and prisons gather demographic information on people who are locked up or on probation. Though she doesn’t yet have a detailed plan for the next step, she aims to use the study to bolster a bill in 2021 that would “ensure that this data is collected and continues to be collected regardless of who’s in charge.”
The Sentencing Commission says it’ll be glad to do the work.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.