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

  • mhowden6

When I took office in January two years ago, one of the projects that was important for me to initiate was to establish a Courthouse Dog Program in my office and get a Courthouse Facility Dog for the District. Ultimately, I’d like a dog for each of the three offices in my district but that will require more funds and grants, so we’ve started with one. We have worked with Assistance Dogs of the West and were fortunate that they awarded us a grant for our Courthouse Dog. It took some time for the right dog to choose us and for the initial training to be completed but six months ago, Cowboy, a Standard Poodle joined our team. Cowboy lives with his primary handler Nina Salazar, who also heads up our Pre-Prosecution Diversion Program. Nina has been through training on her own, and continues to work with Cowboy who comes to work with her every day.



Scientific research shows that the presence of dogs reduces stress in humans. In fact, my offices are all dog friendly. I find that the presence of dogs in our offices contributes to the creation of a calm, happy work environment for the staff, reducing the stress of our stressful work.


Courthouse Facility Dogs are different than Assistance dogs. While there are assistance dogs to aid those who are deaf, or those with mobility problems and seeing eye dogs for example, facility dogs don’t have public access under the 2010 American’s with Disabilities Act because they do not provide assistance to a person with a disability. However, Courthouse dogs must pass the same public access tests that Assistance Dogs do to prove that they can be unobtrusive and well behaved in public.


Courthouse dogs are trained to work in a variety of environments specific to the judicial system: prosecutors’ offices, and courtrooms for example, to provide calm support and a sense of safety to victims and witnesses of traumatic crimes.


Cowboy just spent days supporting a victim in a trial that involved kidnapping, assault and rape. He sat with her through breaks in the trial and right after she testified. At one point during her testimony the victim broke down while on the stand. When she came out to take a break she was in tears and right away Cowboy went to her and laid his head in her lap calming her enough to continue her testimony. While Cowboy’s training is still on-going so is the training for our office. Our attorneys and victim advocates are also learning that they need to bring Cowboy and the victims together earlier in the process so that Cowboy will have established a relationship with the victim.


One of our judges and many of the defense attorneys have welcomed this program and Cowboy wholeheartedly. Some are still coming around. Sometimes people are concerned about dog hair or the potential for mess. Cowboy is hypoallergenic so allergies are not a concern. In general, when people realize the extent of training Cowboy and indeed all service and facility dogs have been through their concerns are alleviated. The benefit of a legally neutral companion during the prosecution of heinous crimes is primarily to help the most vulnerable traumatized victims and witnesses tell their stories. However, Cowboy is available to any witness who needs him. Cowboy allows victims, children, and adults alike, to feel as comfortable as possible to tell their stories to a jury and helps reduce the stress and trauma of reliving a horrifying event in order to do so.


The use of Courthouse Dogs in the United States has grown exponentially since 2003. In New Mexico there are approximately 13 such working dogs, seven of which are working for district attorney offices. We are happy to be one of them and hope that once everybody becomes comfortable with this new approach, that even those who are unsure, be it defense attorneys or judges and other witnesses, all will see that a Courthouse Facility Dog, in this case Cowboy, is only here to support the victims in the service of the truth so justice prevails.




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  • mhowden6

Barbara Romo - District Attorney





As I write this, the 60-day legislative session has just begun.


For a District Attorney a legislative session involves several things. Of course during the session the various finance committees meet to determine what the budget will be for our office (indeed all state agencies) for the next fiscal year. In years past my district has been approved for a specific number of positions. However to date we have not received the funds to hire people to fill those positions. This year our budget request over and above our operating funds is focused on obtaining funds to fill our empty positions. Filling our empty positions will result in more manageable caseloads for our attorneys and support staff. Currently attorneys are carrying on average 245 cases. For a staff person with two attorneys their caseloads are double.


In her State of the State address Governor Lujan-Grisham spoke of her commitment to safety, reducing crime and the importance of law enforcement partnerships. She gave the example of recently graduating the largest class of cadets at the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy. She vowed that she would “fight tooth and nail to keep our communities safe” and to that end she is committing one hundred million dollars toward law enforcement recruitment and training with the end goal of making New Mexico the “safest state in the nation”. We support law enforcement because they are perhaps the most important partnerships we have as prosecutors of crime. They bring us the cases, and if they have done their work well, we can then prosecute the criminals. It’s important to recognize that it takes the work of both the District Attorneys AND Law Enforcement working in partnership to address the problem of crime and work toward making our communities safe. Part of my work and the work of my fellow District Attorneys during the legislature is to further on-going dialogue with our legislators to create awareness that increasing the budget for law enforcement is only one part of the equation. If we do not have the personnel and the dollars to support our staff, it won’t matter how many bad actors law enforcement gets off the street. My attorneys and staff work tirelessly. But they are human and can only do what is humanly possible. It is our job as prosecutors to see the perpetrators of crimes through the judicial system. The judges and juries decide the outcome. All these entities need an increase in financial support to make the state safer.


During the legislative session District Attorneys also track bills that are being considered which may change or somehow impact the work we do. For example some of the bills we are currently following and providing legal commentary on are HB87-264 Domestic Violence and Firearm Possession, HB104-264 No Statute of Limitations on 2nd Degree Murder and HB307-264 Criminal Sexual Contact with a Minor Penalty. A complete list of the bills we are tracking can be found HERE


For the last several years I have been working to secure an amendment to the Victims of Crime Act to include certain enumerated crimes against a peace officer. This amendment would give peace officers the same rights and benefits as all other victims of enumerated crimes. For example, the right to be heard in court and the right to confer with prosecutors regarding the status and disposition of a case and the right for reparations such as loss of wages and home health care. I’ve put this bill forward for several years. It hasn’t been placed on the schedule for a vote which means I begin again the following year. You can find a list of enumerated crimes at this LINK.


In 2015 Rio Rancho Police Officer Greg Benner was gunned down during a traffic stop. In 2016 I prosecuted Andrew Romero, the shooter, resulting in a guilty verdict and life imprisonment without parole. While working on that case, I made a vow to fight to give law enforcement officers assaulted and harmed in the line of duty the same rights as other victims of violent crimes.


From the time I first learned of Officer Benner’s Murder and over the course of the 14 months of preparation for the trial, I saw the devastating impact the murder of one of our sworn protectors has on the entire community. I find it unconscionable that the men and women who put their lives on the line every day for our community do not enjoy the same rights as other crime victims who suffer the same harm. It seems inconsistent with the Governor’s stated purpose of supporting law enforcement with additional resources to not afford the same rights to law enforcement as other victims of crime.




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By District Attorney Barbara Romo




It is not uncommon during an election cycle to hear and read about crime rates, with refrains such as “S/he is soft on crime.” As District Attorney, crime is an everyday part of my life so I can say with conviction that I am familiar with crime in my district. It’s easy to Monday morning quarterback on who is or is not soft on crime, but the real story is more complicated.


A recent newspaper article proclaimed that cases prosecuted by New Mexico District Attorneys have fallen by 29 percent between 2017 and 2021. I cannot speak for other districts across the state, but I know this is not true for my district. Prosecutions in my district have risen 30% between 2017 and 2021 all during an exceptional slowdown in the courts during the peak of the Coronavirus pandemic resulting in delays getting cases in front of judges and Grand Juries especially when courts were literally closed.


A statement that prosecutions are down doesn’t take into consideration that there are several ways to handle cases which do not involve prosecution as such. My sworn duty is about seeking justice not only convictions. When appropriate and the evidence supports it, we vigorously pursue a conviction, and we work hard to get it even in cases where we have circumstances working against us. For example, witnesses are sometimes afraid to testify or may have credibility issues. Looking only at convictions and the prosecution rate is misleading.


Cases may be settled via diversion programs which often suit all the parties involved in a case more than going to court. In our district we have the option of Pre-Prosecution Diversion for first time non-violent offenders, Mental Health Court, and Drug Court. The public has time and again voiced support for diversion programs which don’t qualify as “prosecutions” when looking at the statistics. Referrals to Pre-prosecution Diversion increased 54% in the same time frame.


The Legislative Finance Committee recently published a report that stated that cases adjudicated by jury trial decreased by 47% between the fiscal year 2017 and 2021. Some of the decrease is explained by COVID as mentioned earlier. My fellow District Attorneys and I have frequent discussions about the measure of the prosecution rate and convictions. We don’t agree on all points. But we do agree that the “quality of the prosecution over the quantity” is a necessary measure of evaluation.


The committees who evaluate our budget requests impose certain statistical performance measures to determine if we should receive an increase in our budget. Imposing these measures in a bubble without fully understanding what prosecutors must take into consideration never fully addresses crime, which one legislator termed the “preeminent issue on New Mexican’s minds”.


Our ethical obligation is to confidently prove a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. The charges we seek are restricted by law. For example, my office recently obtained a life sentence following the conviction of Leland Hust for raping and murdering a six-year-old girl. One of my constituents was shocked to find out that “Life” in New Mexico includes the possibility of parole after 30 years. Our prosecution team secured a conviction of a life sentence, but the law in the State of New Mexico says he may not serve life. As prosecutors, we are only as good as the laws we work with.


After pleading guilty to the murder of Anthony and David Lopez in Valencia County Isaac Jaramillo was sentenced to a total of 14 years (6 years each voluntary manslaughter, and one year for the firearms enhancement). Some in the community have wondered aloud, “that’s it?”. In this case there was an eyewitness to the murders who was also a victim who made herself unavailable to testify in a jury trial. A successful jury trial is nearly impossible without the testimony of a key witness. This made this guilty plea and sentencing the most effective solution to this case. Though not adjudicated by a jury trial the case was prosecuted nevertheless, resulting in imprisonment.


When the legislative finance committee runs its numbers, it looks at prosecutions verses the number of cases referred to each district attorney’s office. A case referral doesn’t necessarily equal a viable case to prosecute. As a prosecutor, I will say it again, my job is not just convictions. I am duty bound to seek justice within the law. Behind every statistic there are people, defendants, victims, circumstances, and laws. These must be considered and weighed in the balance of seeking justice and keeping the community safe.



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