So New Mexicans are blowing up the internet again about a “bad judge” who freed someone because of lack of evidence. This is a common reaction—last year when a Taos judge freed suspected terrorists due to lack of evidence, she actually received death threats and the courthouse had to be locked down. Meanwhile, the Attorney General seems hellbent on finding some judge somewhere who will hear a case against Heath White.
Let’s be real clear on this: it is not a judge’s job to fix an incompetent investigation or prosecution. Yet that seems to be what a lot of New Mexicans, including New Mexican prosecutors, are demanding.
My social media feeds are full of screeds about recalling or replacing the district judge who ruled that Fabian Gonzales should be released from custody. Gonzales was released Nov. 19 after being held for nearly 1,200 days after the murder of Victoria Martens. That means law enforcement and the District Attorney had over three years to produce sufficient evidence to either bring Gonzales to trial or demonstrate he posed a danger to the community.
In fact, Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torrez stated publicly in June 2018 that Gonzales was not present at the time of Martens’ death, that the confession placing him there by the girl’s mother was false, and most of the details regarding the case were “simply not true.” At that time, an additional unknown suspect was revealed based on DNA evidence. That suspect has not yet been found.
That’s not to say that Gonzales is an upright law-abiding citizen. He isn’t. He has a history of assault and incarceration. But he wasn’t, by the DA’s admission, at the scene of Martens’ murder. In this country, we don’t detain citizens just because we think they are rotten people. That’s sort of a big deal. We actually need to match up evidence with charges to detain citizens before trial.
Here’s what happened. Somewhere between the discovery of the horrific death of Victoria Martens in 2016 and today, the investigation got botched. Gonzales was arrested at the scene with Martens’ mother, Michelle Martens, and his cousin, Jessica Kelley. Later evidence has resulted in a plea agreement from Martens’ mother on a single charge of reckless child abuse resulting in death, and a no contest plea from Kelley on a similar charge. Both women are awaiting sentencing. Gonzales will stand trial in January.
New Mexico Political Report reported that at the time of the murder, Gonzales was serving supervised probation after being convicted of battery and abandonment of a child. The probation was never enforced. Also, the prosecution has had to correct many of the original horrible allegations to reflect the facts: the autopsy showed that Martens did not have drugs in her system, nor was she raped; the confessions obtained shortly after arrest were false; neither Gonzales nor Martens’ mother were in the apartment at the time of death.
So Gonzales is going to be tried next year, Martens’ mother and Kelley are in custody awaiting sentencing, and Martens’ murderer is still on the loose. Why are we screaming at the judge who released Gonzales? Why aren’t we demanding an explanation about Gonzales’ non-existent probation? Why don’t we demand answers about the fourth suspect? So many aspects of this case have slipped through the cracks in both the investigation and the prosecution, and that is not the judge’s fault.
Let’s look back at the Taos terror suspects. The judge actually told the prosecution that they neglected to introduce into evidence the very same assertions made on the scene by the media. Then she offered them time to introduce the evidence. The prosecution did not. Where is the outrage over the Taos County district attorney?
And in our own East Mountain back yard, the Attorney General filed an appeal of the district court decision to dismiss charges against former Torrance County Sheriff Heath White. The charges were dismissed by the judge’s order because the search warrant was invalid and witness testimony showed that many of the allegations “were not true, were misrepresented” or that “vital facts” were left out “creating a misleading impression of criminal activity.”
Shouldn’t this bother us? New Mexicans are tired of crime, I know. We should also be tired of poor law enforcement and incomplete, inadequate and incompetent prosecution. Seriously, how can we even start to address reducing future crime in the state when we clearly can’t investigate and prosecute crimes already committed?
Merritt Hamilton Allen is a PR executive, a former Navy officer, and the 25-year wife of a defense attorney. She lives north of I-40 where she and her family run two head of dog, and one of cat.