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

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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By Chief Administrative Officer Melissa Howden


When District Attorney Romo took office a year and a half ago she said, “I intend for this office to be seen as a value to the community not just as something that puts bad guys in jail.”


One of the initial actions taken toward the goal of full community engagement was to encourage our staff to engage in community service. By giving staff time off for volunteer hours, we have made it increasingly possible for staff and their families, to invest in the communities of our district.



This initiative has supplemented and supported the work that is already taking place in the communities of the 13th Judicial District. For example, staff members have participated in fundraising and awareness walks for MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), and contributed to a drive for clothing and hygiene supplies for women in the emergency shelters Haven House and Valencia County Shelter Services and helped with food assistance and distribution through People Helping People. Staff members have “adopted” families in shelters for the holidays and some of our attorneys have volunteered as judges for high school mock trials. The Sandoval County Office annually supports Leadership Sandoval County at one of the largest community events in the district, the football game between rivals Rio Rancho and Cleveland High Schools with giveaways, informational presentations and community games led by the SWAT team.


We have also participated in parades and community awareness events hosted by many of our valued partners in the community such as Valencia County Shelter Services, Guardians of the Children Rio Grande Chapter, National Night Out sponsored by the Valencia County Sheriff’s Office, and the Los Lunas and Belen Rotary Clubs to name a few. Our offices have hosted Chamber of Commerce After Hours Open Houses in both Sandoval and Cibola Counties. Our hope is that in the not too distance future we will be able to do the same with the Greater Belen Chamber of Commerce in our Cibola County Office.

Community Education in the Schools


With the new school year starting we have begun a new initiative with the schools. We have reached out to all the Principals in Middle and High Schools throughout the 13th Judicial District to initiate education programs in the schools presented by District Attorney Romo and other staff members on subjects of import to young people for example, Truancy, Consent, Bullying and Cyber Bullying, Sexting, Gangs, Assault, and Drinking and Driving. In the context of this program school officials let us know which topics would be the best for them, for the appropriate age group and what format will serve them best. In some cases, it may be a school-wide assembly, in others a classroom-by-classroom approach. One school in Los Lunas has already requested that addition to student presentations, they would like to include a parent’s night. We do not yet know what format a parent’s night will take. It may take the form of a town hall or something else entirely. Our intention is to serve the schools and the students in the manner which meets their needs. The schools take the lead.


This is a pilot program for us. Once we have a strong foothold, we hope to expand the offerings to Senior Centers, Veterans Groups and more. The Criminal Justice system is a series of interlocking partnerships and agencies just one of which is the District Attorney’s Office. So too does the D. A’s Office interlock in partnership within the communities we serve. The effectiveness of our partnership with the community cannot ride just on conviction rates though those too are of course important. The District Attorney’s Office sees the importance of our activities in terms of the impact on our neighborhoods and the necessity to adapt to the needs of our communities in whatever ways possible. This is the way in which we can invest in the communities in which we work and create meaningful impact one event, one school, one community at a time,


If your organization or school would like to partner with us on a community education and engagement program, please reach out to us by writing to 13thSpecialPrograms@da.state.nm.us




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By District Attorney Barbara Romo


I’d like to take this opportunity to explain why cases sometimes get dismissed after they have been referred to the DA’s Office. There are several types of dismissals and a variety of reasons why cases get dismissed. We rely heavily on our law enforcement partners to do complete and thorough investigations before submitting cases to our Office for prosecution.


As I have mentioned before, prosecutors are ministers of justice and as District Attorney, I am responsible for protecting the rights of all citizens in my district, whether they are victims or suspects. While law enforcement normally will submit a case that meets the elements required for probable cause, sometimes we need further investigation to make the case strong enough to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, which is our burden before the fact finder. These cases are sometimes dismissed “pending further investigation.” When a prosecutor dismisses a case it is called a nolle prosequi, which reflects the prosecutors’ discretion whether or not to prosecute. These dismissals are always “without prejudice” meaning we can and do re-file charges if and when the additional investigation is complete. On the other hand, sometimes a case will be submitted for prosecution which may meet all the requirements to allow us to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt, but there is a constitutional violation such as a bad stop or bad search which precludes us ethically and legally from proceeding with prosecution. We try to use these instances as teaching moments to help our law enforcement partners understand and hopefully not make the same mistake again.



Another common reason why cases are dismissed, either by the Court or by the DA is lack of victim and/or witness cooperation. This is frequently the case in domestic violence cases where victims, for a variety of reasons, do not wish to continue with the prosecution of an offender. In other cases, key witnesses who may have given a statement to police during the initial investigation, make themselves unavailable to testify. This could be from fear of retaliation or due to a complicated familial relationship with the offender for example. When this happens, either the prosecutor or the judge will often decide to dismiss the case. If the judge dismisses the case s/he can either dismiss “with prejudice” or “without prejudice”, depending on the circumstances. If the judge dismisses “with prejudice” the prosecutor is legally precluded from refiling the charges—even if the witnesses decide to cooperate after the dismissal. Sometimes we will dismiss a case (Nolle) in magistrate court and present to the Grand Jury to decide whether there is sufficient evidence to proceed to district court. So, a dismissal or Nolle in magistrate court doesn’t necessarily mean the case will not be prosecuted. And, while our victim advocates work closely with victims and witnesses, we also have to keep in mind that forcing someone to testify might do more harm than good and I am always cognizant and wary of the potential of re-traumatizing victims and witnesses.

Finally, first time non-violent offenders are ordinarily given the chance to enter a diversion program, which if completed will result in a dismissal of the charges. This is an incentive to help individuals who have strayed off the legal path become productive citizens without the burden of a criminal record. Our Pre-prosecution Diversion Program assists these offenders by getting them counseling and other resources to help them deal with issues that led them to make the mistakes that got them in trouble with the law. These individuals also give back to the community with donations of clothes, food, school supplies etc. as well as participating in community service. The goal is to reduce crime by turning offenders into productive and engaged members of our community which in turn makes the community a better and safer place to live.


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