‘Remember who you’re fighting for’

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Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Editor’s note: Raúl Torrez has made waves since taking over as district attorney in Bernalillo County last year, clashing with judges, administrators and sometimes lawmakers, as he pushes to remake the DA’s Office and ramp up the fight against crime.

Fresh out of law school in the spring of 2005, Raúl Torrez was getting ready for his first trial.

An assistant district attorney in Valencia County, the newly minted lawyer would “second chair” a shaken baby case, responsible for putting on the expert testimony.

“I was terrified I would screw something up, so I called my dad (longtime federal prosecutor Presiliano Torrez) and asked if I had forgotten anything. He said, ‘Have you met the little boy?’ ”

The answer was no.

“I said, ‘Dad, he’s not going to be a witness or anything,’ and my dad said, ‘That’s not the point. Go meet the little boy.’ ”

Raúl called the foster family and arranged to see the child, whose name was Marcelino.

“He was terribly damaged. I started talking to him and playing with him, but his eyes couldn’t track,” Torrez recalled.

After the foster family left, Torrez called his then-girlfriend – now his wife.

“I was crying and said, ‘I can’t do this job. I can’t.’

“She said, ‘Yes you can. After all you’ve done, you can’t just walk away. You have an obligation to do something. So do it.’

“It was at that moment I understood. It wasn’t about the courtroom or the procedure. It wasn’t about all the normal things of getting ready for trial. It was about putting a face to that little boy. It was about remembering who you’re fighting for.”

The prosecution won a conviction in that case and Torrez moved on from the 13th Judicial District after about a year to take a position in the state Attorney General’s Office. From there he went to Washington, D.C., as a White House Fellow during the Obama administration, worked as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque and ran his own one-man law firm. He was elected as Bernalillo County district attorney in 2017.

To this day, he keeps a picture of Marcelino in his office to remind him why he has chosen to be a prosecutor, dealing with the nitty-gritty of crime that plagues this state and city, working for $121,000 a year – despite a blue-ribbon résumé that includes Harvard, Stanford Law School and the London School of Economics and Political Science.

He says he tells new hires in his office the story of Marcelino.

“I tell them three things: Do the right thing, do the smart thing and remember who you’re fighting for.”

If you don’t do that, he said, “you can’t last in this job.”

Torrez – a Democrat who was elected with the help of a $100,000 contribution from liberal George Soros to a political committee supporting his candidacy – took over as district attorney on Jan. 1, 2017.

For the record, Torrez, 42, says he doesn’t know Soros, never met him and has no idea why he kicked in $100,000 to get him elected.

Did he send Soros a thank you note?

“No.”

As he prepared to take the helm, Torrez knew the DA’s Office had been overwhelmed, in part, because of an explosion in uncharged cases that followed a state Supreme Court order imposing tough new time restrictions on cases in an effort to clear up a huge backlog that had languished. In some cases, defendants sat in jail for years, awaiting trial.

Still, he wasn’t prepared for the magnitude of the challenge.

There were staff vacancies, inadequate information technology capabilities, a sour relationship between his predecessor and the Albuquerque Police Department – and more than 8,000 uncharged felony cases sitting in the office. Stacked in boxes in hallways.

These are cases that police had sent the files on for prosecution. And nothing happened.

Net result: A lot of bad guys were walking the streets and committing more crimes because the system had crashed.

“Walking in and seeing all those cases was shocking,” he said. “I didn’t understand the scale of the problem until I walked in the door.”

Torrez says the state Supreme Court directive – applicable only to Bernalillo County and known as the Case Management Order – didn’t contemplate the comprehensive resources that would be needed to make the system work under the new rules. Ultimately, he says, it led to a spike in crime.

His relationship with judges in the 2nd Judicial District can be described as rocky – at best. He has battled them over the issue of pretrial detention, arguing that too many dangerous defendants have been released under various restrictions when they should be held in jail.

The Supreme Court has weighed in on several cases, issuing opinions that have sought to make clear that prosecutors don’t have to put on a full-fledged case when seeking detention and that judges can consider a wide range of circumstances in holding a defendant pending trial – positions generally advanced by the DA’s Office.

Now, Torrez is embroiled in a battle with the courts over grand jury time.

Torrez has aggressively charged defendants and had asked for additional grand jury days to present cases for indictment. The District Court responded by announcing it would dramatically cut back the existing schedule.

Torrez was shocked by the response – which is now in abeyance.

“We had the first sustained drop in crime in seven years, occurring at a time we’ve doubled our case filings. It’s obvious that if police are going to go and arrest people, you need to move quickly and efficiently to charge them.”

In fact, he said, “speed and efficiency in case filings are important factors in cutting crime. More important than severity of punishment.”

In the face of all that, he said, cutting back grand jury time made no sense.

Torrez isn’t completely opposed to the idea of preliminary hearings favored by the court as an alternative to grand jury indictments, but says they require significantly more resources and are much more prone to being rescheduled. He says that nearly two-thirds of the scheduled preliminary hearings in Metro Court currently “fail,” often because the defendant or someone else doesn’t show up.

New Mexico requires more extensive testimony in preliminary hearings than is required in federal court and many states, placing an additional burden on police departments and victims to show up for preliminary hearing “mini trials.”

Faced with the initial slashing of grand jury dates proposed by the District Court, Torrez said his office would have had to do between 20 and 25 preliminary hearings a day in Metro Court – assuming that court could handle the huge new caseload.

“That’s potentially 50 police officers a day who are not in cars, answering calls for service because they’ve got to be here for a docket, and I can’t even tell them when their case is going to be called. They might sit there for two hours, and then find out the defendant isn’t even there.”

Torrez was restrained in his criticism of the court system, keeping it issue-oriented rather than personal.

“My focus is on trying to make this place work, and God knows there are things we need to do. But I do have an obligation to speak out about how some of the rules and the way they are implemented affect us and affect the community.

“And I’m going to keep doing that. I’m proud of the drop in crime – although murder, guns and auto theft are still way too high – but I feel if we can focus on how to improve ourselves and get better every day, that’s what we need to do.”

A big part of that effort is his new Crime Strategies Unit, a data-driven approach that seeks to unmask criminal networks and concentrate on serious offenders

For example, a car thief who simply has a drug habit might get a deferred prosecution and treatment, while a member of a criminal network arrested for the same offense will have the book thrown at him.

It’s an especially important tool here, where there is a “substantial cartel footprint” in drugs and guns. One recent case involved the arrest of three suspects – along with the confiscation of semiautomatic rifles and body armor.

Torrez had to fight hard for the program, since some lawmakers balked at the idea of focusing extra resources on Bernalillo County.

In keeping with his focus on victims, Torrez is proud of a remodeling project in his office, where they have a suite to decompress and visit with victim assistance staffers and a therapy dog named Woodstock.

Torrez lists cooking as a hobby, with steak and risotto as specialties. “Except on Sunday, when the kids want pancakes, and I’m the pancake king.”

He played basketball, soccer and ran track at Sandia Prep – where his mom was a Spanish teacher – and still blows off steam when he can by playing pickup basketball at lunch at a Downtown gym where he shot hoops as a kid.

When he can’t schedule basketball, he wakes up at 4:30 or 5 a.m., does a little work, then hits the gym.

He says he doesn’t get as much sleep these days. The cases race through his mind.

“The Martens case,” he says, “is one that keeps me awake at night.”

The horrific murder, rape and dismemberment of 10-year-old Victoria Martens occurred before Torrez took office, but much of the prosecution has fallen apart with the revelation that two of the key suspects – Victoria’s mother and her boyfriend, Fabian Gonzales – were not present when the girl was killed, and that another man’s DNA was found at the scene.

Torrez delivered the shocking news to the public.

“I think I was like everybody else at the time. I made assumptions about the case. It’s upsetting to the community, but you have an obligation to the truth.”

Will Victoria’s murder ever be solved?

“I hope so, and we’re doing everything we can. But the more time and distance from the actual event, the harder it becomes. Evidence disappears. Witnesses disappear.”

Torrez is more than a “lock em up and throw away the key” prosecutor.

He understands the impact of dysfunctional family units, child abuse and drugs, and has agreed to take on the role of co-chair of Mission Families, a new initiative of United Way of Central New Mexico that seeks to break the cycles of poverty, poor educational outcomes and crime by providing support to family units in a coordinated way.

“I understand that, as a prosecutor, I’m taking a sledgehammer to these units when we charge people,” he says. His goal is to concentrate on serious crime as district attorney, while looking for ways at Mission Families to improve lives and break the cycles by providing needed services.

While Torrez would go on to graduate cum laude from Harvard with a degree in government and a master’s, with merit, from the London School of International Political Economy – where he wrote the top departmental thesis: “Justice and the International Trading System” – his academic career got off to a shaky start.

“I was going to kindergarten at Alvarado in the North Valley and basically flunked out,” he said. “I guess my cutting, pasting and sharing weren’t up to par.

“So my dad took me out and enrolled me at St. Mary’s Downtown. I was 5, and he figured the nuns would straighten me out.”

And his legal career was almost derailed before it began.

He took the Law School Admissions Test in London, where he said a proctor made a mistake and called “time” early. He hadn’t even begun one section.

“She said she would write a letter, but I got up in the middle of the exam and canceled my score. I told friends that it ‘looks like no law school for me.’ ”

But a friend he had worked with in a dot.com startup in New York convinced him to come to Los Angeles and go to work for the Cesar Chavez Foundation. He took the LSAT again and was admitted to Stanford Law School, where he was first team mock trial.

He met his wife, a lawyer who is now a dean at the University of New Mexico, when he was working a summer job at the Rodey Law Firm in Albuquerque.

After graduation, he took the assistant district attorney job in Los Lunas to get into the courtroom immediately.

“My friends I went to school with would find Albuquerque on the map, and I’d tell them, ‘No keep going south.’ ”

The pride and affection shows as Torrez talks about his dad and growing up.

“He never, ever pushed me to follow his career path,” Torrez said, but “I used to wait for him to come home. I’d meet him at the curb and carry in his briefcase.”

“I remember walking to his office from St. Mary’s after school and sometimes did my homework at Mori’s, the old cop bar. That’s the thing people don’t understand about me or my personal story. I’m a second-generation prosecutor, and I tell people this is one of the most depressing – yet rewarding – family businesses to go into.

“But this is what I know. I grew up around undercover agents, cops and prosecutors.”

He says his life came full circle when he was co-counsel with his father in his first federal court trial – a “really tragic felony murder case where a guy robbed a bank and in the subsequent chase killed two young women on their lunch break when he hit their minivan going 60.”

“My dad was old school, with yellow legal pads, and I was high tech, with diagrams and sophisticated reconstruction stuff. At one point, he started punching buttons, and I told him to stop. It was like we were in our living room when I was growing up.

“Not many people get to be co-counsel on a case like that with their dad.”

Torrez laughs and downplays any notion that he has bigger political ambitions.

But he has dabbled in that arena. In addition to serving as a White House Fellow and working for the Cesar Chavez Foundation, he was chief counsel to then-state House Speaker Ben Luján in 2008, appearing before committees and drafting floor speeches.

But his prosecution roots run deep, and he touches on them in talking about why he ran for district attorney.

“I grew up here and frankly was fed up with what I was seeing. Fed up with crime. Fed up with feeling things were out of control.”

“At this point, I just want to make this work. I don’t think people understand how it feels to be right there three blocks from your elementary school and your dad was a prosecutor.

“It’s the hardest job I’ve ever had, but the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.

“This is personal.”

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District Attorney Raúl Torrez keeps a photo in his office of a little boy, Marcelino Aragon, a victim in a shaken baby case that was Torrez's first trial.

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When Raúl Torrez took over as Bernalillo County district attorney in January 2017, he faced backlogged cases, staff vacancies and IT problems. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

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Raúl Torrez stands in an office that's part of a suite where victims can file restraining orders, decompress and visit with victim assistance staffers and a therapy dog. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

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Raúl Torrez is pictured during homecoming at Sandia Prep in 1995. He later attended Harvard and Stanford.

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Raúl Torrez shoots the basketball during a game at Sandia Prep. The district attorney still plays pickup games at a gym Downtown.

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A mountain of files in boxes is stacked in the violent crimes area of the 2nd Judicial District Attorney's Office in 2017. It is one of the challenges District Attorney Raúl Torrez has had since taking office that January. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

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Bernalillo County District Attorney Raúl Torrez, with an assistance dog named Woodstock, in his Downtown office. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

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