Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Armed with homemade signs and blue ribbons, more than 100 assembled in front of District Court on Sunday afternoon to protest a judge’s controversial decision to free the man facing charges in connection with the death of 10-year-old Victoria Martens.
While the ruling releasing Fabian Gonzales sparked Sunday’s Downtown rally, attendees used the event as a chance to voice a range of complaints about the way the case has been handled, and with the state’s justice and child welfare systems.
Gonzales has been in jail for more than three years awaiting trial in the case and in that time prosecutors have completely revised their allegations against him. Once accused of raping and murdering the child, the state later discovered that Gonzales was not even at the girl’s apartment when she was killed, prompting the dismissal of some of his most egregious charges. He is now accused of child abuse resulting in death and with helping his cousin Jessica Kelley dismember the girl’s body after an unidentified man – who was looking for Gonzales – reportedly walked into her family’s apartment and killed her.
Many at Sunday’s protest are grappling with the changing allegations in the case and hoping that more details will emerge.
“We don’t even know the fact of this case,” organizer Josh Perez said after the event.
“That’s why the community is out here protesting today, because we want answers,” he said.
At a conditions of release hearing Wednesday, Judge Charles Brown denied a request by prosecutors to continue holding Gonzales behind bars as the case – currently on appeal – slowly moves toward trial. A flyer advertising Sunday’s gathering called for Brown’s removal and he was a focus of several protesters’ signs.
“Charlie Brown, you’re a clown, you’re going down, get out of our town,” one read.
As he announced the ruling on Wednesday, Brown said the state had failed to prove that Gonzales poses a threat to the community – a finding Sunday’s protesters were struggling with.
“We’re supposed to believe that he’s not a danger to society?” said Gloria McNab, who attended the protest with her 10-year-old son. “I think that’s preposterous. I mean, he’s a danger to everybody because of his lack of conscience.”
Some worried that he might hurt other children while others wondered whether Gonzales himself might become a target.
Online jail records showed Gonzales was still in the county jail as of Sunday evening, and it is not clear when he may physically be released from custody.
Meanwhile, the state’s Criminal Defense Lawyers Association has weighed in on the decision, saying Brown was right to “demand real evidence before continuing to keep Gonzales in jail.”
“Fabian Gonzales’ liberty has been partially restored after being incarcerated for three years even though the evidence used to put him in jail has been proven to be untrue and based on false confessions,” attorney Ahmad Assed said on behalf of the association.
“While District Attorney (Raúl) Torrez asks the Courts to violate an individual’s well-established Constitutional rights in order to obtain favorable press attention, we cannot ignore that the law requires a balancing of the rights of the accused with the rights of the community. When the District Attorney has no evidence to prove that a person presents a continuing danger to the community, there is no authority to hold them in jail until their trial.”
The Administrative Office of the Courts also released a statement pointing out that America’s legal system presumes people are innocent and that releasing a defendant pretrial avoids punishing a person who has not yet been found guilty.
“What happened to Victoria Martens is horrific and all New Mexicans want justice in this case,” AOC Director Artie Pepin wrote. “In every case, a judge’s responsibility is to follow the law – not be swayed by emotion or public sentiment. Judges take seriously their obligation to protect public safety in deciding whether people charged with a crime should be held in jail or remain free until their guilt is determined at trial.”
Pepin said that the DA’s Office can seek an expedited appeal if it believes the court erred. Prosecutors said Wednesday that they plan to.