The revelation that Jessica Kelley could have, and should have, been in prison at the time she allegedly committed one of the most horrific murders here in recent years is shocking enough.
But just as important, her case is symptomatic of the implosion of the criminal justice system in Bernalillo County in the final years under then-District Attorney Kari Brandenburg, who left office at the end of 2016. Granted, the meltdown can’t be laid entirely at her feet. There were mitigating factors that included a huge backlog of court cases, strained relationships between the DA and the Albuquerque Police Department, and a Case Management Order from the state Supreme Court that imposed tough new time limits on prosecutors and police.
But in a nutshell, the prosecutor’s office under Brandenburg simply wasn’t able to cope with the situation and undertake the important reforms now being pushed by her successor, Raul Torrez, who is working with the city and other partners to develop a data-driven approach to focus on serious repeat offenders.
Jessica Kelley fits that category.
To review, Kelley is one of three people charged in the August 2016 rape, murder and dismemberment of 10-year-old Victoria Martens at a West Side apartment. Victoria’s mother, Michelle, and boyfriend Fabian Gonzales, who is also Jessica Kelley’s cousin, also face murder and sexual assault charges.
As reported by Journal investigative reporter Colleen Heild in the Nov. 10 Journal, Jessica Kelley was busted Sept. 11, 2015, by her probation officer for having strips of the drug Suboxone and baggies in her purse – an indication of drug trafficking. At the time, Kelley was also on parole for an earlier conviction for conspiracy to commit criminal sexual penetration. The discovery of drugs in her purse was enough for the state Parole Board to revoke her parole and it convinced an Albuquerque judge to find she violated her probation. Kelley was sent back to prison to complete the final 233 days of her sentence.
Acting on the state probation officer’s discovery, APD brought a new drug trafficking charge against Kelley. But Brandenburg’s office voluntarily dismissed the case without prejudice a week later, stating the case would be re-filed after drug testing and additional discovery. APD sent the test results to the DA’s office on Dec. 16, 2015, but the case wasn’t re-filed for more than eight months – after Kelley had been charged in the Martens murder.
Because the charge had not been re-filed by the time Kelley walked out of the women’s prison in Grants on Aug. 15, 2016, (and announced her release on Facebook), Kelley was free and without supervision of any kind because she had completed her sentence behind bars.
She has since quietly pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing in the Suboxone case while her trial in the Victoria Martens murder case is pending.
DA Torrez, upon taking office Jan. 1, was faced with thousands of criminal cases that had been dismissed, with files in cardboard boxes stacked everywhere in the office. His office has moved to have Kelley sentenced as a repeat offender in the drug case.
One of Kelley’s co-defendants, Fabian Gonzales, also benefited from the justice system meltdown. A year before the Martens murder, he was facing charges of felony child abuse and battery against a household member. But he was allowed to plead no contest to misdemeanor child abandonment in February 2015. The plea occurred just weeks after the Case Management Order took effect and prosecutors were scrambling to meet new deadlines. He was sentenced to two years supervised probation but there was no follow-up on the probation order. Like Kelley, Fabian Gonzales was free as a bird.
Victoria was murdered eight days after Jessica Kelley was released from prison.
Sadly, these cases are hardly an anomaly. Statistics provided by the Administrative Office of the Courts show some 802 cases were dismissed without prejudice in Bernalillo County in the first 10 months after the Case Management Order took effect. Many, if not most of them, were dismissed voluntarily by Brandenburg’s office – which had had two years to prepare for the CMO – just as Jessica Kelley’s was, with the option of re-filing. They included cases against accused murderers, drug traffickers and sex offenders. How many were ever re-filed is unknown. And things would be even worse had the feds not taken hundreds of defendants off the street through various prosecutions.
But the important takeaway is how to go forward.
First and foremost, Torrez needs to continue his push for smart, data-driven prosecution, and legislators need to step up with enough money for that system to work. The new administration at City Hall needs to continue with important data work done under the Bloomberg grant obtained by the Richard Berry administration, and with programs like ALeRT that give prosecutors and judges timely information about serious repeat offenders.
Finally, in light of these efforts, the Supreme Court needs to revisit the Case Management Order and its harsh deadlines. The court had good reason to act when it did – the case backlog had grown to an unacceptable level, and prosecutors and trial judges were simply unwilling or unable to fix the problem without a mandate.
But it’s time for the rule to be lifted or significantly modified – in conjunction with a new, data-driven prosecution effort and other programs.
Because, at the end of the day, the public has every right to expect a criminal justice system that functions as it should. And so did Victoria Martens.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.