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The 2016 murder, rape and mutilation of 10-year-old Victoria Martens was so horrific that it captured the attention of the entire state.
The girl was strangled after being sexually assaulted. She was then dismembered, and her body was set on fire in the bathtub of the family’s Northwest Albuquerque apartment.
Then-police chief Gorden Eden declared it “the most gruesome act of evil” he had ever seen in his career.
“I want to assure the public that we will pursue justice and we will make sure that we exhaust every resource into this investigation,” Eden said. He also assured those who lived near the crime scene that their neighborhood was safe and that there were no other suspects in the case.
“There is no threat to public safety,” he said.
Fast forward 22 months, and the murder cases against two of the three suspects originally charged have collapsed, with a forensic psychiatrist saying the interrogation of Victoria’s mother, on which the cases were based, was conducted improperly and yielded false admissions and contaminated statements. Indeed, District Attorney Raúl Torrez now says that much of what the public was told about the case is just plain wrong.
Torrez has also stated that once that faulty statement was obtained, it was imperative that investigators immediately embark on the painstaking work of trying to verify every detail Michelle Martens provided. He questions whether that was done. A former homicide sergeant who worked the case said the investigation did continue, but was hampered by delays in getting DNA testing done.
Authorities now say there was a mystery man present when Victoria was raped and murdered who has yet to be identified. In other words, one of the monsters who authorities now believe took part in the brutal, fatal attack is still out there, despite Eden’s hollow assurances to the contrary.
The manner in which the Albuquerque Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office handled this case – under the leadership of Eden and former DA Kari Brandenburg, respectively – raises serious questions about the two agencies. This was arguably the highest profile case this state has seen in at least a decade, and they botched it.
There’s no question this was an emotionally devastating case for those who worked it. But that didn’t negate the need for police and prosecutors to get it right so they could bring those who hurt Victoria to justice. Instead, what we ended up with was faulty charges against two individuals that were not corrected for nearly two years.
To his credit, Torrez immediately ordered a case review when he took over as DA in January of 2017, four months after Victoria’s death. He said he discovered lapses with how the case was handled, including the failure to fast track the processing of DNA collected from the crime scene. And his office continued to dig as Michelle Martens’ statement began to unravel. Torrez assigned a team that includes two seasoned prosecutors and a seasoned paralegal, and APD contributed two seasoned detectives. They have been focused on this case for more than a year.
It’s clear that Torrez and APD are working hard to ensure that everyone who played a role in what happened to Victoria is held accountable. Michelle Martens, the girl’s mother, has already pleaded guilty to child abuse resulting in death and is facing prison time. The rape and murder charges she and Fabian Gonzales were initially charged with have been dropped. Gonzales was charged in a new indictment with child abuse resulting in death and tampering with evidence. Jessica Kelley, the third suspect in the case, is still charged with rape and murder. And prosecutors have filed a John Doe indictment also charging rape and murder against an unknown fourth person.
Regardless of how these cases turn out, APD and the DA’s office must take a hard look at what went so wrong here and take steps to keep it from happening again.
And there’s a lot to work with.
• Both APD and the DA’s office should ensure they have experienced investigators and attorneys working on high-profile cases such as this. Hiring more officers may be the battle cry, but they should be working to build that experience capacity so they have a reliable pipeline of seasoned investigators and prosecutors.
• APD should ensure that all of its investigators are receiving ongoing training in how to conduct interrogations. A forensic psychiatrist brought in by Torrez has determined that Michelle Martens’ interrogation was full of false admissions and contaminated statements. Part of the problem was how the interrogation was structured. Officers questioning her revealed certain details that she later incorporated into her story. In addition, some of the statements Martens made – often contradictory hmms or uh-huhs in response to questions – were presented as the definitive account.
• Even if they have a statement that they believe to be credible, investigators must continue working the case to ensure that it lines up with evidence and is accurate.
• And someone needs to take the lead in making sure that evidence is processed in a timely manner so that if there are any surprises, they know about them early on. In 2016, the DA’s office had been taking the lead. Torrez says that should be APD’s job.
Mistakes were made here, and it’s important to hold people accountable for those. But it’s also important to recognize APD has been short-staffed for years, and that likely was a factor in how this played out.
It’s also important to give credit to Torrez and to APD for realizing there were problems with the case and for doing everything in their power to get to the truth, rather than burying their heads in the sand.
Finally, it’s important for the public to recognize the mistakes made in this case are exactly why defendants deserve good defense attorneys to advocate for them and ensure they don’t end up in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.
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.