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Southern NM district attorney not seeking public defender

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

“A series of complicated misunderstandings and a few mistakes” led to a judge’s determination that an embattled Southern New Mexico district attorney earning a six-figure salary was eligible for free legal representation, according to the Law Offices of the Public Defender.

Francesca Martinez-Estevez, district attorney for Grant, Luna and Hidalgo counties

The judge, in a May 1 ruling, found that Francesca Martinez-Estevez is indigent and entitled to have a public defense lawyer represent her as her case makes its way through the appellate process. The story was first reported July 2 by online news site New Mexico In Depth and garnered statewide attention.

The district attorney did not respond to requests for comment by the New Mexico In Depth reporter.

But Martinez-Estevez told the Silver City Daily Press on Friday that she did not make the request, didn’t know why it had been filed on her behalf and has no intention of using a public defender. She told the paper she was considering representing herself.

According to a database of state employee salaries, Martinez-Estevez makes $120,999 annually. Her district covers Grant, Luna and Hidalgo counties. She could not be reached by the Journal for comment Monday.

In an emailed statement Monday, Chief Public Defender Ben Baur confirmed that Martinez-Estevez never sought out his office or claimed to be indigent and said that nothing nefarious was going on in the case.

“Before any substantial work would have been done, though, there would have been contact with the client, and both counsel and Ms. Estevez would have realized that she did not qualify for and did not want our services,” Baur wrote.

On a Saturday in 2016, a witness reported seeing Martinez-Estevez swerving into oncoming traffic and speeding in a vehicle later found to be registered to the DA’s Office, court documents say. Officers spoke with Estevez, who was wearing a muumuu, after she had parked the car outside of a building in Silver City. She explained that she was taking soup to her friend, and had been driving erratically because the car had a flat tire.

Although officers thought she might be impaired, she was not tested and never faced drunken driving charges. The attorney who represented her through the bulk of her case said that she does not drink and called the case a “shameful political attack.”

Prosecutors with the AG’s Office raised concerns over her alleged use of a state vehicle in the pursuit of a personal interest. That office ultimately charged her with a series of misdemeanor and petty misdemeanor crimes and Estevez pleaded guilty in June 2018 to reckless driving and disorderly conduct. She was sentenced to a year of unsupervised probation and if she successfully completes it, the charges can be dismissed.

The AG’s Office has appealed a court order in the case dismissing certain counts against Martinez-Estevez. The attorney who represented her in the case, Jim Foy, was appointed to a vacant judgeship in the 6th Judicial District earlier this year.

Baur said the AG’s Office contacted LOPD in March to ask if it had plans to represent a defendant in an appellate case. In response, LOPD started the process of assigning a contract lawyer to assist in the case temporarily until a private attorney could be hired, or the process to officially approve a public defender was completed.

“At this stage, there were several misunderstandings among several people in different parts of our department, all of them very busy and well-meaning,” Baur said. “At some point in the process, someone, whether staff in our department that hires contract attorneys, our Appellate Division, or the contract attorney we retained, should have double checked on the status of the case and reached out to the client. Because of the unusual circumstances in this case, that did not happen.”

A contract lawyer was retained and filed a one-page document necessary to have LOPD appointed to the case, which the judge ultimately approved.

Baur said LOPD has taken internal steps to address the issues.


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