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Editorial: Suspect in brutal murder should stay in custody

Jesus Cartagena Jr.

Jesus Cartagena Jr. is scheduled to go before a judge in a Bernalillo County district courtroom today to determine if he will remain in custody pending his trial.

It’s been less than two weeks since police charged the 20-year-old in the brutal slaying of his 19-year-old ex-girlfriend, Shanta Hanish, and her mother, Laura Hanish. Both women were stabbed repeatedly in the face and neck. Shanta Hanish was also strangled.

A layperson would assume Cartagena – who turned himself in to police in El Paso the day after the bodies were found – would be kept in lock-up until his trial.

Unfortunately, despite the frightening savagery of this crime, that’s not a given in the metro area court system.

Since state voters approved reforms to New Mexico’s bail system in 2016 – taking the much-needed step of eliminating cash bonds, which allowed defendants to buy their way out of a jail cell – judges have been asked to make the important hold-or-release decisions based on a number of factors, including criminal history, flight risk, potential danger to community and gravity of the alleged crime. In Bernalillo County, judges use the so-called “Arnold tool” – an evidence-based pre-trial risk assessment scorecard of sorts developed by the Arnold Foundation – to help them make those sometimes tough calls.

While that sounds good, a worrying trend has emerged: at times judges appear to rely solely on the tool and skip the all-important judicial discretion part. Even when those defendants are accused of disturbingly violent offenses.

A couple recent examples:

• Darian Bashir, who is charged in the May 4 shooting death of UNM baseball player Jackson Weller, was accused of using a gun in the commission of a crime twice – well before Weller’s death. In 2017, Bashir was accused of shooting a man in the stomach, but charges were dropped before trial, though they have recently been refiled. Then, in February this year, he was charged in connection with what appeared to be a gang-related gunfight. Despite this troubling history – that, granted, had yet to be fully litigated – Bashir was released on his own recognizance, leaving him free to allegedly shoot a college athlete to death outside a Nob Hill club.

• Anthony Juarez, who allegedly fired more than two dozen rounds from an AR-15 rifle during a standoff with police late last year, was released on his own recognizance as well.

This brings us back to Cartagena, who according to a Sunday Journal story has no criminal history. The judge who will likely hear prosecutors’ request for pre-trial detention today could very possibly see an Arnold tool assessment that shows a low level of risk.

Despite that lack of a rap sheet, despite the surprise of Cartagena’s friends and acquaintances – one of whom described him as a “gentle giant” – and even taking into account Cartagena’s undisputable right to a presumption of innocence, there’s no two ways about it: the sheer brutality of the crime charged means he should not be released.

The Arnold tool, as the name implies, is just a tool. Judicial discretion has to win out in all cases.

And this tragic story highlights another theme all too well-known to the survivors of domestic violence: the surface of an abusive relationship can appear idyllic, while ugly truths lie beneath. The fact an accused killer has no criminal record, the fact that none of his friends could have imagined this coming – those clearly aren’t infallible indicators for what a person is capable of.

Criminal record or no, nobody should get a “get out of jail free” card for their first run-in when it allegedly involves a double homicide that includes strangulation and repeated stabbing. From police descriptions of the scene, there appears to have been uncontrolled rage and/or mental imbalance in this crime that presents a clear danger to the community.

And you don’t need a judicial system algorithm to tell you that.

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.