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EVENTS, THOUGHTS AND UPDATES FROM THE 13th JUDICIAL DISTRICT ATTORNEY'S OFFICE

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By Robyn Simms, Deputy District Attorney for the Valencia County Office.

 

It is not a secret that crime is a pervasive problem in Valencia County. When a defendant is released from custody after arrest, people often believe that somehow law enforcement has failed to protect the community and/or the District Attorney has failed to successfully argue for a defendant’s incarceration prior to trial. While we do not claim to be infallible the truth of the matter is that the prosecution team is restricted by a 2016 change in the New Mexico Law which makes it much more difficult for prosecutors to argue to keep offenders in custody pending trial. This leaves law enforcement, and community members who have been impacted by the defendant’s actions, frustrated, disappointed and often angry.


The law reads, “Bail may be denied by a court of record pending trial for a defendant charged with a felony if the prosecuting authority requests a hearing and proves by clear and convincing evidence that no release conditions will reasonably protect the safety of any other person or the community.” The result of this law is that very few defendants are kept in custody pending trial. As prosecutors we are bound to work within the confines of the law which sometimes does not support our intended outcome.


The release of a defendant after arrest does not stop the prosecution. Pre-trial release decisions are only the beginning of the District Attorney’s Office pursuit of justice. Repeat offenders are released by the Judge under a set of stringent conditions. Similarly, the release of a defendant does not mean that law enforcement did not do a good job with the arrest, charging and investigation, nor does the defendant’s release pending trial reflect an animus or bias from the judge.


When recommending incarceration for a defendant prior to trial, the prosecution team initiates formal proceedings when clear and convincing evidence shows that no other release conditions can protect the safety of our community. The prosecution teams’ recommendation balanced with the defendant’s presumption of innocence. Within this delicate balancing act the Judge, and prosecutors make decisions which take into consideration the safety of the community coupled with the constitutional guidelines rooted in our criminal justice system.


It is a misconception that pretrial incarceration is the only deterrent to future criminal misconduct. Valencia County has effective resources such as Pre-Trial Services and in some instances law enforcement to monitor defendants who have been released pending trial but, it is the responsibility of the defendant to comply with their conditions of release and to either abide by the law or not abide by the law. Conditions of release do not give a defendant free reign within the community while awaiting trial. Should a defendant violate their conditions of release and/or commit a crime the prosecutors receive notice and then request revocation of release pending trial.


Though it appears that the law unfairly benefits the defendant at the expense of the community this is not the case. Every member of the criminal justice system, from the judge to the defense, to prosecutors and law enforcement work diligently to honor the law and constitution regardless of any individual opinions regarding the status of the law.


Without hesitation I know that the best law enforcement officers I have ever worked with protect our community. We work collaboratively with law enforcement who day in, and day out strive to effectively investigate crime and protect the community. All of us are equally bound to the laws we are bound to enforce. Every decision we make as integral participants within the criminal justice system, reflects our understanding of the law and our underlying commitment to both Federal and State constitutions.


Under the leadership of District Attorney Barbara Romo, and with the commitment of my prosecution team we endeavor every day to build upon what is already a great working relationship with each law enforcement agency in our District - Belen, Los Lunas, Bosque Farms and Isleta Police Departments, Valencia County Sheriff’s Department and New Mexico State Police. Their continued commitment to public safety and their tireless efforts dedicated to the protection of this community do not go unnoticed.


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By Barbara Romo, District Attorney



The District Attorney’s Office is tasked with prosecuting cases and seeking justice through a fair and transparent judicial process. This encompasses a strong commitment not only to a fair judicial process but also the creation and practice of principled policies for the people of the 13th Judicial District. Our consistent aim in the pursuit of justice is advocacy for, and commitment to, victims of crime, their rights and access to a variety of comprehensive services.


What sometimes gets lost is the understanding that while the DA’s office is entirely committed to protecting a victim’s constitutional rights, we also have to prove the crime in a court of law beyond a reasonable doubt while protecting both the rights of the victim and the rights of the defendant. Protecting the rights of the defendant is part of our duty and as ministers of justice, and also insures a conviction is immune to reversal if the case is appealed. Sometimes this requires us to make difficult choices along the way.


The cooperation of a victim throughout the court process often is key to a successful unsuccessful outcome. Rights of victims include the right to be informed, the right not to be harassed, the right to be present and the right to be consulted. Though a victim has these rights it is not always the easiest process for a victim to take advantage of them out of fear, residual trauma and other reasons. This is where our Victim Assistance staff comes in. Our staff assists victims with crisis intervention, counseling referrals, obtaining restitution and emergency assistance, case status notification, and escorts them to every court appearance.


In the last year, our victim assistance staff across the district has helped almost 1500 victims of crime. It is important to understand that the number is much greater when we consider the families of victims of crime who are also greatly impacted. The victim assistance staff work to provide a secure, comfortable, supportive environment where victims, witnesses and and their families are introduced to the extensive services available to them through the District Attorney’s Office and beyond. Victims also receive information about their rights in the criminal justice system.


Carol, a survivor of attempted murder and kidnapping initially did not want to pursue the case against her perpetrator. She was understandably fearful of the process and her abuser. With the encouragement and support of the victim assistance staff throughout the process, she was ultimately able to find the strength to cooperate with our office and testify against her abuser. He was found guilty and sentenced to 26 years in prison. Carol found she was capable of more than she ever believed.


Krissy was the victim of a violent crime. As a result of the crime she became emotionally unstable, very weak and somewhat broken. She was not sure she could face her abuser in court. Her Victim Assistant supported her through the entire case process and was with her when she testified in court. She stood in court just a few feet a way from her abuser and explained how the she felt and how the abuse left her physically disabled for the rest of her life. During her testimony she broke down and cried but when she walked out of that courtroom she held her head high and expressed pride in herself and said she was leaving her fear and self-doubt behind.


In some circumstances the support for victims extends to resources beyond the DA’s office as in the cases of family members that have lost a loved one and have no idea how to pay for the funeral in order to lay them to rest. The Victim Assistance staff makes referrals to services such as the Crime Victim Reparation Committee www.cvrc.state.nm.us which provides financial assistance in these instances.


The last week in April is National Crime Victims Right’s Week (April 25-30). The theme for the awareness week this year is Rights, access, equity for all victims. This theme mirrors the daily intents and goals of the 13th Judicial District Attorney’s Office — to reach and support victims of crime, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized, and to support them through the criminal justice system which can be confusing and overwhelming, in order to seek the justice, they so deserve. For more victim services information and resources please visit https://www.13th.nmdas.com/victimassistance


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The Third and Final Installment in the After the Arrest Series - By Chief Deputy District Attorney Jessica Martinez




VOIR DIRE: JURY SELECTION

The first stage of the trial is called Voir Dire which translates to “See the truth”. At this stage, a panel of 40 or more jurors who reside in the county in which the trial is taking place are selected using a lottery system. The Judge speaks with all the potential jurors and ask them questions. Once the judge is finished asking the jurors questions the District Attorney can ask questions of the jurors. Once the District Attorney has finished asking questions, the defense attorney asks questions of the jurors. The goal here is to get to know as much as possible about each potential juror to select jurors who do not possess biases and preconceived notions about the case before hearing the evidence. The state and the defense want jurors who will decide the outcome of the case based solely on the evidence presented during trial.

Once questioning is finished, the court goes through each juror one by one and asks the defense and the state if they would like to keep that juror or strike them. The State picks first and gets three strikes. The defense gets 5 strikes. The first 12 jurors who are not stricken will be selected to sit on the jury.


TRIAL

Once a jury is Impaneled, opening statements commence. The State always goes first during a trial. Opening statements are a chance for the State and the Defense to tell the jury what they believe the evidence will show. It’s a chance to give the jury an introduction into what the case will be.


After opening Statements, the state then puts on what’s called its Case in Chief. The state calls all their witnesses to testify about the nature of the case, presents physical evidence through these witnesses such as photographs, videos, clothes with blood on it or the weapons used during the crime. Once the state has finished asking questions of each witness the defense may then cross examine the witness to test that witness’ credibility. After cross examination the state may then ask follow up questions only regarding what was discussed in cross examination. The state cannot go beyond anything discussed in cross examination. This is called, Outside the Scope of Cross and an objection will be raised by the defense if this happens.


Also, during the state’s case in chief, the state must make sure to prove each element of the charges. For example, a charge of a battery on a household member, the state must show

1. The defendant intentionally touched or applied force to the victim, a household member.

2. The defendant acted in a rude, insolent, or angry manner.

3. This happened in New Mexico on or about the day of incident.

A household member means a spouse, former spouse, parent, present or former stepparent, present or former parent in-law, grandparent, grandparent-in-law, a co- parent of a child, or a person with whom the Defendant has had a continuing personal relationship. Cohabitation is not necessary to be deemed a household member.

The state then attempts to prove these elements by presenting testimony from the victim about what happened, when it happened, where it happened, the relationship between the victim and the defendant, and asking the victim to identify that the defendant is in fact the person who caused the injuries to her/him on the day in question to prove each element of battery on a household member.


The state may also call other witnesses to corroborate the victim’s testimony such as law enforcement officers who responded to the call and who maybe saw marks on the victim’s body, or wounds on the defendant’s knuckles, or who collected the assault weapon. Other witnesses may also be called to testify who may have seen the incident take place, and possible forensic scientists who tested the evidence for fingerprints, DNA, or blood.

When the state has finished presenting all the evidence the state possesses against the defendant the State will rest. The defense then makes a motion for a Directed Verdict and argue that the state failed to meet its burden of proof, failing to prove each element of the crime charged. While this motion is standard practice it is rarely granted in full, however, occasionally a case will get dismissed because the evidence presented did not prove each element of the crime charged.


If the court denies the directed verdict motion, the defense then can put on its own defense. The defendant is not obligated to put on its own defense. If the Defendant chooses not to put on his/her own defense the jury will be instructed not to consider this choice in their deliberations as it is the defendant’s constitutional right to do so and should not be judged for invoking this right.


After all evidence has been presented, the State and the defense will present their closing arguments. Closing arguments are a chance for both parties to explain to the jury why they should reach a certain verdict based on the evidence presented in court. The State will present first, followed by the defense. Once the defense has finished their closing argument, the State will present a rebuttal closing argument.

DELIBERATION

After the State and the defense have finished presenting their cases and evidence to the jury, the judge reads the jury a series of instructions called Uniform Jury Instructions. The jury must follow these instructions during their deliberations and must unanimously answer yes to every question in the jury instructions to reach a verdict of guilty. If they answer no to any of the questions, then their verdict must be not guilty. If the jury cannot unanimously reach a decision, then the jury will hang. This is called a hung jury. If this occurs, the judge will declare a mistrial and new trial will commence to a new panel of jurors.

If the jury reaches a guilty verdict the court moves on to sentencing the defendant. Most often if the judge has discretion on the range of sentencing the judge will order a Pre-Sentence Report. This report is prepared by probation and parole. It includes the defendant’s background such as childhood experiences, past and current drug abuse, any mental or physical conditions, employment history and criminal history. The judge uses this report to help make his/her decision at sentencing.


SENTENCING

Before the judge decides on how to sentence the defendant, the judge hears arguments from the state, which is usually for a stricter punishment, and the defense, which is normally for a more lenient punishment. After hearing the arguments and statements from family members or victims the judge decides and sentences the defendant. The sentence can range anywhere from probation to incarceration depending on the nature of the charges and the defendant’s history.

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