ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – A backlog of criminal court cases in New Mexico continues to grow as COVID forces massive delays. Prosecutors are worried those delays could weaken the cases against those criminal suspects.
The jury trial delays related to COVID are not just by a week or two, but for months at a time. Two years into the pandemic, the state’s courts are still dealing with the impact of a massive backlog of cases, along with more trials getting pushed back because of exposure to the virus.
“Lately, that seems to have been more of a problem than before. Of course, we’re receiving a lot of positive cases statewide,” said Arthur “Artie” Pepin, director of the New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts. “In the scheduling of trials and hearings, it’s been the unavailability of the lawyers, the participants, the witnesses, due to COVID exposure by those folks.”
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Public defenders say they’re also impacted greatly by the delays. In addition to the trials, Albuquerque’s surge in violent crime — and a record number of homicides — only add to the backlog.
“Your caseload builds up, people still get arrested and charged with their cases but the old ones haven’t resolved,” said Douglas Wilber, a supervising attorney in the Public Defenders Office. “You have this problem where you get more and more clients, and then you’re trying to figure out when these trials will be.”
It also brings up a big question. If trials continue to be delayed — often years after the crime — could the cases against these suspected criminals start to weaken, as memories of the crime gradually fade and witnesses move away or even pass away?
“The pandemic has impacted our ability to stay in touch with witnesses and victims and we’ve seen that at a rate where they’re not as willing to come and participate in these proceedings,” said Raul Torrez, the Bernalillo County District Attorney. “There’s a very real risk that the longer we delay in moving forward with some of these trials that we’re going to have these cases fall apart over time.”
One of those cases that have been delayed for years is Fabian Gonzales, tied to the 2016 death of 10-year-old Victoria Martens. After years of delays and changes in charges, he was set to go to trial last week, but a COVID exposure has now moved the case along another six months.
“Maybe you thought there were legitimate reasons to delay a case early on and then it sort of snowballs,” said Wilber. “All of these things happen on top of it.”
Court officials in the state say while it’s concerning to see trials delayed, they’ll continue to work on getting jury members placed and proceed with trials as often as they can. With COVID restrictions, the jury selection process has been extended.
“We’re required to give people a speedy public trial and we work very hard to do that,” said Pepin. “Sometimes, things are out of our control.”
As for Fabian Gonzales, DA Torrez says he signed a waiver to a speedy trial early on. That rescheduled trial is now set for July 11. Torrez says he hopes by summer, the COVID spike will settle down so they can get back into the courtroom without delaying cases any further.