ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – The Bernalillo County District Attorney said the pandemic is letting criminals off the hook. The two ways to start a felony case is either by grand jury indictment or a preliminary hearing to determine probable cause. Grand jury indictments haven’t been allowed since March due to the pandemic which the district attorney said has been challenging.
The Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office said violent crime is increasing up four percent from last year overall with homicides on pace with the record 82 murders that happened in 2019. However, DA Raul Torrez said his office is actually initiating fewer felony cases this year, down 35 percent which equals about 1,300 felonies below what they expected to prosecute this year.
“If we are going to make an impact on public safety, I have to have an efficient way to initiate felony cases,” Torrez said. He said the most efficient way is by grand jury indictment, but due to the pandemic, those aren’t allowed.
Instead, they are only able to do preliminary hearings which he said are much more resource-intensive, lengthy, and if just one participant fails to appear, he can’t start the case. “If we can’t proceed with the preliminary hearing because the defendant hasn’t bothered to show up and is not detained, we are just stuck,” Torrez said. “The evidence goes stale. Eyewitnesses move away.”
He said grand jury indictments, on the other hand, almost never fail to occur. Torrez said they take just 10 to 15 minutes, only require one to two witnesses and if the defendant doesn’t show up, they can carry on anyway.
He said once we are on the other side of the pandemic, he is pushing for substantially more access to grand juries for a better shot at getting these cases rolling. “Not just return our normal access to the grand jury, but really increase the available grand jury panels so we can dig out of this hole,” Torrez said.
Torrez said he has to hold off on starting these cases until he can be assured that witnesses, defendants, police, and victims will all be present for the hearing, sometimes forcing the charges to be reinstated multiple times. The DA’s office said they have submitted proposed changes to preliminary hearings, but the supreme court hasn’t responded.
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