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Editorial: DA bumbling left FBI to save Taos compound case

Five adults were taken into custody last month from a filthy Taos area compound, where authorities discovered 11 malnourished children and the body of a 3-year-old who was allegedly kidnapped from his home in Georgia by his father.

State prosecutors alleged Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, the boy’s father, and Jany Leveille, the boy’s stepmother, intentionally deprived the child of his seizure medication, performing a prayer ritual over him instead to cast out demons they believed were making him sick.

The five defendants are also accused in court documents of training children to carry out armed attacks against society.

And yet the district attorney’s office in Taos County botched the case to the point where two judges last week said they had no choice but to dismiss the initial child abuse charges that all five of those defendants had been facing. Taos District Attorney Donald Gallegos – realizing his office wasn’t prepared to move forward with a preliminary hearing for charges of child abuse resulting in death against the father and stepmother within the 10 days mandated by law – also dropped those counts, the last of the major state court charges. He says he plans to present the case to a grand jury later this month.

Thankfully, FBI agents swooped in Friday and re-arrested all five adults on federal firearms and conspiracy charges.

Leveille, a native of Haiti and one of the five Muslim defendants, is now charged in federal court with unlawful possession of firearms and ammunition by an alien living illegally in the U.S. The four others are charged with aiding and abetting and conspiring with her in the weapons violation.

And while the FBI rode to the rescue to ensure the firearms case is judged on its merits, there is still the DA’s shoddy handling of the state child abuse charges so far.

The initial child abuse charges were thrown out because prosecutors missed a deadline to hold preliminary hearings.

Before that, they failed to present sufficient evidence to convince a judge the defendants should be held pending trial. A judge ruled the prosecutors hadn’t met their burden to show community danger by clear and convincing evidence.

Among those outraged by how this case has played out so far are Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe and both N.M. gubernatorial candidates. U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, the Democratic candidate, called the situation “inexcusable” and U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, the Republican nominee, called for Gallegos to “resign immediately.”

Meanwhile, Gallegos is defensive about the blistering criticism his office has been receiving, posting on Facebook, “My staff has worked diligently, professionally and ethically and I am very proud of them.” OK, but what about basic prosecutorial competence? If allowing five felony defendants to skate on a technicality is work to be proud of, imagine what poor performance looks like.

This is arguably the highest profile case this DA’s office has ever handled. National attention has been intense, and the fact state prosecutors were outmaneuvered at every turn leaves the impression the Taos team is out of its depth on basic policies and procedures. No wonder many New Mexicans believe the state criminal justice system is broken. Now many outside the state believe our justice system is a joke.

Thank goodness the FBI stepped in, but it can’t take on the Taos DA’s whole caseload. Gallegos needs to do some soul searching, and seriously consider asking Attorney General Hector Balderas to step in to prosecute state charges in the compound case. If recent history is any indication, it’s a case his office and its resources are not equipped to handle.

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.