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Court: Grand jury cuts are local issue

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Instead of intervening as requested, the Supreme Court is urging Bernalillo County’s district attorney to work with local justice partners to resolve his concerns about ongoing cuts to the grand jury system.

Chief Justice Judith Nakamura responded last Friday to a letter sent by District Attorney Raúl Torrez and Mayor Tim Keller asking the high court to step in as Bernalillo County’s District Court moves forward with a plan to increase the use of preliminary hearings by decreasing grand jury settings.

“We believe the issue raised in your letter is more appropriate for review, discussion and resolution by the (Bernalillo County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council) at this time,” Nakamura wrote. “A successful resolution however, will depend upon the full and cooperative participation of key stakeholders, a thorough review of all the data, and a willingness to consider both evidence-based best practices and community needs.”

Nakamura urged Torrez to “participate personally in this process or, at a minimum, designate a representative with policy and decision making authority to attend on his behalf.”

The BCCJCC is made up of 11 council members, including the chief judges at district and Metropolitan Court, the DA, the district public defender, the sheriff, police chief and others. According to its website, the group aims to identify issues in the legal system along with potential solutions and to maximize efficient use of resources.

Torrez wrote back to Nakamura on Thursday, saying that he has no confidence that the concerns of prosecutors and police will have an effect on members of the committee, who have repeatedly opposed the request.

“Despite these misgivings, I will personally ask the BCCJCC to vote on a resolution that we maintain sufficient grand jury capacity to handle no less than 1/3 of our current felony referrals and that no additional cuts be considered until the crime rate in this community matches the rest of the state,” Torrez wrote. He says representatives from his office regularly participate in the group’s meetings and subcommittees.

A spokesman for his office said the DA’s Office receives around 10,000 felony referrals each year, and in recent years it has filed about 4,000 cases in District Court annually.

“We are forced to leave roughly 60 percent of referred cases on the table because the current system can’t handle it,” spokesman Michael Patrick said in a text message Thursday.

Torrez and Keller wrote in their letter that when the court’s plan is fully implemented, it would offer grand jury capacity for “fewer than 10% of all referred felony cases.” Prior to 2015, they wrote, the court offered grand jury capacity for around 6,000 indictments per year.

Since then, the court has gradually reduced the amount of grand jury availability.

In his letter Thursday, Torrez asked Nakamura to direct the court to halt those planned cuts to the grand jury system as he makes his presentation to the BCCJCC.

Sidney Hill, a spokesman for the 2nd Judicial District Court, said in a statement Thursday that the court has worked with law enforcement and defense lawyers to “gradually increase the use of preliminary hearings in lieu of grand jury proceedings.”

He said the court agrees with Nakamura that developing methods for efficient use of system resources should be a collaborative process, and “we would welcome participation by the district attorney” in the coordinating council.

Entities within the Bernalillo County justice system have been sparring for months over the best way to launch new cases in District Court. Most cases are started in one of two ways: a grand jury proceeding before a group of citizens or a preliminary hearing before a judge. The jury or judge is tasked with determining whether there is probable cause to support formal charges.

In a grand jury hearing, the panel of citizens determines whether to sign off on an indictment based often on the testimony of a case agent during a secret and relatively short proceeding. A defendant is not present unless he or she is testifying. Torrez has said it is easier to charge via grand jury because they employ less strict evidence rules.

More witnesses — law enforcement officers and sometimes the crime victim — may testify in a preliminary hearing, which is like a mini trial. The defendant is present and represented by an attorney who can question witnesses and present evidence. Advocates say preliminary hearings often lead to earlier resolutions because they force parties to evaluate evidence early on.

Maggie Hart Stebbins, a Bernalillo County commissioner who also serves as chairwoman of the BCCJCC, said Thursday that the council is the appropriate place for this conversation.

“It’s a mechanism that was established specifically to bring all entities to the table to resolve issues that arise in the criminal justices system,” she said.

And Ben Baur, chief public defender, said the purpose of the council is to address these concerns. He has said that preliminary hearings are much more effective and efficient than grand juries.

“In the same way that preliminary hearings are designed for everybody to understand a particular case early in the process and make decisions, the coordinating council is designed so that people’s ideas and proposals get vetted and discussed early in the process,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the city of Albuquerque said that the city’s police department and the Keller administration have a “good working relationship” with District Court and will continue to work with justice partners to “come up with a reasonable solution that puts public safety first.”

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