SANTA FE, N.M. — A stethoscope-carrying, EMT-trained judge, aided by a handful of accused criminals on their way to her court, stopped on a snowy Rio Arriba County highway last week to give first aid to a crash victim who was set to appear before the judge that morning.
After helping the man for an hour on U.S. 84 north of Ghost Ranch, state District Court Judge Sheri Raphaelson continued to the county courthouse, changed out of her bloody clothes, convened court and called defendant Isaac Martinez’s name.
“He’s not here,” the judge recalled thinking to herself, when interviewed Tuesday. “He’s in the hospital; I will not issue a bench warrant for his arrest.”
It all happened about 9 a.m. on Feb. 4, when Raphaelson and court bailiff Jeff Martinez, who carpools with the judge from Española, came upon an overturned pickup about eight miles north of Ghost Ranch. The judge holds criminal court every Tuesday in Tierra Amarilla, roughly 30 miles to the north.
A woman, Isaac Martinez’s mother, was standing worriedly near the crash. Isaac Martinez was a passenger in the truck driven by his mother when it skidded off the highway as it was snowing.
Martinez, of Española, had been seat-belted in the truck and had to be cut out by an unidentified passerby, said Rio Arriba County Deputy Manuel Romero, who responded from Española along with two other deputies. The truck was “pretty much demolished” and there were about seven people around the victim, he said.
That included Raphaelson, her bailiff and other passersby. “I could see blood everywhere and I tried to see where it was coming from,” she said. Raphaelson checked the injured man’s pulse and listened to his lungs with a stethoscope. “If he started to lose blood we would have just have had to watch him die,” the judge added.
She said she recognized the crash victim as a man who was set to appear before her that morning at a pre-trial hearing on a burglary charge.
Raphaelson, who is also a midwife, had recently returned from a Christmas volunteer trip to Haiti where she delivered babies. She had the stethoscope but had not transferred her full medical kit to her car.
As Martinez bled from his head and hand, the judge tried to comfort him.
“I don’t know if she (the judge) had any medical training,” Deputy Romero said Tuesday. “She appeared to be very caring and sincere … just professional and aware of any injuries he had.”
Raphaelson said she wanted to keep Martinez calm until an ambulance could arrive, which took an hour after someone drove south to get cellphone coverage. Raphaelson didn’t tell him who she was.
“Unfortunately, he recognized me,” she said. “I guess he did appear before me (previously).”
” ‘Really, I’m a midwife,’ ” she says she told him. ” ‘But it doesn’t look like you are having a baby.’ ”
Martinez managed a laugh. As the judge held his hand the others present, including at least three other defendants headed to Raphaelson’s court, held a makeshift tarp over them to keep the falling snow away. The judge covered him with her jacket.
Martinez was taken to the U.S. 84/N.M. 96 junction, where a helicopter flew him to Christus St. Vincent’s Regional Medical Center in Santa Fe.
One defendant told the judge, ” ‘I knew I was supposed to be in court but I thought someone’s life was more important than court,’ ” the judge related.
Raphaelson said she will now have to think about recusing herself from all of the cases for the defendants who joined her on the roadside.
“If I could make all of their charges go away, I would,” she said. “What I saw of their character in that incident tells me so much more about their characters than I could learn from their police files.
“They are the people I want out in the community. For all the criticism of Rio Arriba County being a hub for drug users, one thing you can always count on in Rio Arriba County, if you need help, a group of strangers will stop and help you always.”
Later that night, Raphaelson said she could not stop thinking about the crash and drove to St. Vincent’s, but crash victim Martinez had been released.
In another twist, Martinez and his mother, before the crash, had just picked up a tombstone for his sister who had died a year earlier.
It flew out of the pickup on impact and landed upright. One of the dates on it, Dec. 9, is Raphaelson’s birthday. Several bystanders agreed to take the heavy tombstone back to Española.