Ask anyone. The number one issue facing New Mexico is crime. A two-month News 13 investigation finds our justice system dangerously overloaded. The problem is not that crooks aren’t being arrested, it’s that they aren’t being prosecuted. In fact, there are so many criminal cases clogging the system that thousands of accused felons, charged with everything from armed robbery to auto theft, won’t be prosecuted.
Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torrez says that’s what happens after the handcuffs come out, “…someone is put in the back of a police car and booked into jail, (that’s) when the criminal justice system starts. That’s not when it ends.”
Before a criminal suspect can be prosecuted, police detectives must first gather evidence and interview witnesses. A single case can consume hundreds of hours of investigation. The Albuquerque Police Department hands the District Attorney’s Office about 9,000 felony cases every year.
But many of those cases simply fall through the cracks. As a result, accused criminals, most of them repeat offenders, are handed “get out of jail free” cards courtesy of an antiquated, underfunded and overloaded justice system. “Of the (felony cases) submitted (to the DA) for various reasons, 40 percent are not prosecuted,” APD Interim Chief Mike Geier says. Chief Geier admits that’s not justice, “It’s very disturbing.”
“This office ends up taking about 2,000 felony cases a year and putting them on a shelf and hoping to get to those sometime in the future,” DA Torrez says. How does the Bernalillo County DA explain that to crime victims? “You can’t explain it in a way that makes any sense to someone who doesn’t live day in and day out inside this system, who doesn’t understand what we’re up against, what the police are up against and the tools we have to get that job done.”
Consider the January 2014 stolen vehicle case against repeat offender Eugene Chavez. Chavez’s felony case never made it to court because his file sat unopened in the DA’s office so long the charges had to be dismissed. In February 2014, Chavez was arrested again, this time for fraud and forgery. However, we will never know if he was guilty or innocent because the DA misplaced the case file and had to dismiss charges.
Joseph Lujan’s February 2016 narcotics possession case was dismissed because a Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Deputy failed to turn over an audio recording of Lujan’s arrest. Lujan was then arrested in May 2016 on auto burglary charges, however, that case too was dismissed because the case got lost in the backlog.
Raul Torrez says a lack of resources is the reason his office cannot even come close to prosecuting all the pending felony cases in his office. He says there are simply too many criminals and not enough staff. “If we don’t get sufficient resources in this legislative session I would think several thousand felony cases simply will become too old, too stale for us to act on. It’s not justice,” Torrez says.
There was no justice for repeat offender Calupp Henderson. His September 2015 stolen vehicle case was dismissed by the DA.’s office because a police detective failed to send the DA a copy of the police report and the original theft report. Henderson’s March 2016 stolen vehicle arrest also wasn’t prosecuted because the APD detective did not provide the DA with a complete report. Following those case dismissals Calupp Henderson was arrested three more times, accused of crimes ranging from criminal damage to stolen vehicles.
Adrian Martinez’s February 2016 stolen property charge was also dismissed by the DA because the case file got lost in the District Attorney’s backlog. Martinez’s May 2016 narcotics and firearm case also wasn’t prosecuted because the Isleta Police Department ignored repeated requests for drug test results.
Career criminal David Straub got a free ride on his January 2016 criminal damage case because the discovery package APD detective turned over the DA was incomplete. And, the DA was forced to dismiss charges from Straub’s March 2016 arrest on multiple felonies because an APD detective turned in an incomplete evidence package.
Dejohni Orndorff’s free ride through the justice system came about after her November 2015 stolen property arrest. The DA had no choice but to dismiss the case after six APD officers failed to show up for their pre-trial interviews. Orndorff’s July 2016 arrest on multiple felonies also fell by the wayside because APD officers failed to appear for a motion’s hearing.
The DA was forced to dismiss Dominic Schuler’s burglary case because a District Court clerk failed to set the date for a scheduling conference by the mandated deadline.
The list of failed prosecutions goes on and on: Brandon Vigil (Burglary), Dominic Ballejos (Stolen Vehicle), Jennifer Plummer (Larceny), Roger Hocker (Stolen Vehicle).
When you put it all together you find thousands of accused felons getting free rides through the system, not because they are innocent, but because of under-staffing, court imposed deadlines as well as bureaucratic and administrative missteps.
News 13 asked Chief Geier about the value of a major felony investigation that gets dismissed for an administrative reason? “It’s of no value because if it gets dismissed it’s almost like, (from) the detective’s perspective, why bother. Why did they put all that effort in if this is the end result?”
“Unfortunately there are too many cases left behind that action should have been taken on and need to be taken on. But we just don’t have the people to get things going,” DA Torrez says.
State legislators set the District Attorney’s budget. This year, Raul Torrez is asking for a $5.4 million increase to handle the felony case backlog.
“The reality is that Bernalillo County accounts for 50 percent of the property crime, 50 percent of the homicides, 70 percent of the auto thefts and this office receives about 26 percent of the appropriated funds for (statewide) prosecutors,” DA Torrez says. “So in addition to having a police department that is under-resourced, you have a prosecution office that is dramatically under-resourced.”
“If these cases go unanswered that only emboldens criminals in this city,” says Assistant District Attorney David Murphy, who supervises the general prosecutions division. “This is a big deal to average everyday citizens. It’s a big deal to victims of our major crimes. It’s a big deal to my neighbors.”
“I would agree that the system is broken but it’s not irreparable,” Chief Geier says.
“This is not something that is either so complicated or so expensive that it can’t be fixed. It’s simply finding the political will and the community voice to make it a reality,” according to DA Torrez. “The reality is that we haven’t paid for a criminal justice system that can actually provide real justice,” Torrez says.
Assistant District Attorney Candace Coulson is assigned the unpleasant job of calling crime victims and letting them know the accused offender in their case is not going to be prosecuted. “I feel bad because it’s our job to hold people accountable when they break the law and we’re not going to be able to do that,” Coulson says.
“We’re not going to make a serious dent in the crime problem in this community until you have more police officers and more prosecutors. Until you can really bring accountability and let people know that there are consequences associated with criminal conduct you’re not going to make a dent,” Raul Torrez says.