The scales of justice

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(This is the last of a three-part series about the judicial process in Valencia County. In this story, a public defender, the district attorney and a judge talk about the process.)

(This is the last of a three-part series about the judicial process in Valencia County. In this story, a public defender, the district attorney and a judge talk about the process.)

As a public defender, Los Lunas attorney Greg Gaudette never knows what he’ll be handed.

Brent Ruffner-News-Bulletin photo: Many variables are taken into consideration in criminal cases heard at the Valencia County District Courthouse. The cases are handled by officials such as defense attorneys, the district attorney and a judge.

It could be a misdemeanor. It could be a murder. Either way, he takes the case and defends his client vigorously.

Because there isn’t an actual public defenders’ office in Valencia County, the defenders’ office in Santa Fe contracts with local attorneys to do court-appointed work in Valencia County. A request for proposal is put out, those interested respond, and based on experience, are awarded two-year contracts, Gaudette said.

The attorneys are then put on a rotation basis. There are five local attorneys doing criminal work in Valencia County and each magistrate and district court judge has the list.

“When a new case comes up, they look at the list to see who’s next. It’s random then you’re off and running,” Gaudette said.

Each case, depending on type, pays a flat fee — a misdemeanor is $180, a juvenile case is $250; felonies ranges from $540 for a fourth-degree charge up to $690 for a first-degree offense.

“And that’s all you get, no matter how long the case goes,” Gaudette said. “You see it through to the end, whether it’s a trial, plea or dismissal.”

If someone qualifies for a public defender, they are required to contribute $10 to the public defenders’ office, Gaudette said.

And for that $10, you get a professional attorney.

“I think as a core group, we are very good at what we do. There is the perception that the court-appointed attorney may not be the best,” he said.

Taking a case from investigation to sentencing isn’t as quick as the 42-minute television shows make it out to be, Gaudette said.

“There are a lot of players involved in how long the case takes. You have the DA, who is responsible for the filing, the judge, who has to set the docket, and the defending attorney,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s an issue that can be resolved quickly or if you have to go through a lengthy process.”

Gaudette said the pace of a case is driven by who wants to drive it.

“The DA or the public defender can set hearings, the judge can schedule a status hearing. You talk to the client, analyze the case. If there are no federal issues, no competency issues, you can expedite it,” he said. “But sometimes, the best thing for a client is to not move quickly.”

If necessary, the state can “pause” the case, Gaudette said, to do things such as re-interview witnesses or if they don’t have all the evidence.

“Witnesses leave, officers retire,” he said. “We used to be backlog for scientific testing of physical evidence. It takes a long time. I think the DA does good work; they work hard.”

One thing neither side wants to see is speed for the sake of speed, Gaudette said.

“You don’t want to rush through a case just for the sake of expediting it,” he said. “You could jeopardize someone’s constitutional rights. There are a myriad of reasons the system slows down. There’s no one person you can point to. You have to do it right — to do it right once and not have to do it again.”

Typically, public defenders are assigned 10 to 12 felonies in a month, about 140 a year, Gaudette said. In order for a speedy trial violation to be triggered, the New Mexico Supreme Court has determined the time frame to be 12 months. However, that 12 months isn’t the only thing considered.

“They have to show prejudice to the defendant, consider whether they are in custody,” he said. “We move cases at an appropriate speed. Some are sentenced to jail time, others are waiting for transport to a department of corrections facility.”

More public defenders isn’t necessarily the answer to a slow system, Gaudette said.

“Each case has its own complexities and differences, its own pace,” he said. “Do we want to do a better job? Sure, we all do. But some cases just take time.”

When someone is arrested for a crime, it’s up to the 13th Judicial District Attorney’s office to prosecute that person on behalf of the state.

It is also that office’s duty to make sure the case is handled efficiently and quickly.

Lemuel Martinez, the 13th Judicial District Attorney, said when a person is arrested and booked into the Valencia County Detention Center, the clock starts ticking.

That person must appear before a magistrate within 48 hours and be allowed to enter a plea. At that same time, there is a bond hearing.

Martinez said, depending on the crime and other circumstances, the judge will release the person on their own recognizance or set a reasonable bond.

If the charges are severe enough, the judge may impose a high bond or allow no bond and keep the person in custody.

“For example, a murder charge might result in a $1 million cash-only bond,” Martinez said. “If the person cannot afford the bond, they are held in jail.”

Then the burden is on the DA’s office to take the case before a grand jury for an indictment or take it to a preliminary hearing. Martinez said if the person charged is in jail, his office has 10 days to present evidence to a grand jury.

“There is a lot of pressure on the state to move cases forward,” he said.

If an indictment is handed up, the DA’s office has 15 days to get the case assigned to a district court judge.

At any time, the person can still post the bond and be released, Martinez said. If they can’t, very often they are left sitting in jail while the judicial process ramps up for a trial or hearing before a judge.

Martinez said at one time, speedy trial requirements put cases to trial in six months.

“Now we have one year. Things can drag on two, three, four years because of strategic maneuvers by the defense,” Martinez said. “If competency is called into question, all the rest is out the window. Everything is on hold until an evaluation is done, either by the state or privately. Then we let the judge decide if they are competent.”

Martinez said the defense attorney may appeal a decision or ask for a continuance.

“Strategic things can delay a case. The state can’t be the cause of a delay. We want to push the case through,” he said. “The judge will give the defendant time.”

But if too much time goes by, the DA’s case can start to break down.

“Witnesses move, so do victims. Officers leave the force, go to other departments,” he said. “We have to be very, very careful things don’t go too long. In the last three years, our staff has increased but it doesn’t match the increase in the case load. We are pushing people, asking them to do more with less.”

One thing Martinez said may help alleviate long times spent just waiting in jail on the taxpayers’ time are pre-prosecution decisions.

“A program to try and get rid of cases quickly. Not say, ‘You’re going to sit in jail,’ but instead go into a diversion program,” he said. “We have to be more efficient.

“Our district attorneys are the lowest paid in the system. These people are committed to something greater than money though. Our job is to keep the community safe,” Martinez said. “We do the best we can with what we have. Ultimately though, the DA and public defenders, all we are, are beggars and pleaders. The judge makes the decision. I’m not going to say it’s good or bad. That’s the process.”

After 19 years on the bench, District Court Judge William Sanchez feels he has a smoothly running system for his criminal cases.

Once a case is in the system, Sanchez says the oldest ones are set on the trailing docket, which is reviewed quarterly.

“They end up making their way through so we take care of the oldest first,” Sanchez said.

When the trailing docket is reviewed, there are 70 to 80 cases to go through, Sanchez said.

“I see the status, and depending on what it is, issue a bench warrant, a continuance, set a trial date,” he said.

And again, the trials are set for the oldest cases first. Depending on the complexity of the case, Sanchez said he will block out one-, two- or three-day trial periods.

During that time, there may be special trial settings due to exigent circumstances, Sanchez said, as well as the civil case load he handles.

“My office always tries to accommodate everyone. I think a lot of the delay comes down to lack of preparedness and communication,” he said. “So many times we end up with difficulties because, for instance, the public defender doesn’t have all the discovery. They blame the DA. If they didn’t have it all, why not ask for it six months ago? Why wait until the day of the hearing to bring it up?”

Sanchez said both sides need to prepare for the legal proceedings, and some times there are good reasons to delay.

“Some cases can only go forward if both sides are prepared. Some cases are not that complicated,” he said. “It’s hard to penalize the defendant if their attorney is not prepared. That’s what you’re doing if you go ahead.

“I don’t want to see a defendant claim ineffectual counsel. Once you have an appeal and the time to hire a new attorney, it doesn’t really help to push things forward if I know they are not ready,” Sanchez said. “You almost have to show a little more deference to the defense, but I want them to do their job and they need to move the cases along.”

If a case is continued, the judge said the DA usually makes sure it finds its way back on the docket.

“That seems to work well,” he said.

One thing Sanchez says he is always aware of is the population of the jail. Built for 90 prisoners, the facility quickly and frequently becomes overcrowded.

“Sometimes the defendant’s attorney will request that they be allowed to serve their time out in the county jail. If it’s over 364 days, they need to go to the prison,” he said. “I know there are reasons they would like to be housed here, but we simply can’t. As a citizen of Valencia County, I can’t put that burden on the community.”


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.