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DA: Referring cases to federal court a crime-fighting strategy

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Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torrez, discusses the arrest of 17-year-old Nathaniel Valenzuela at a June news conference. Torrez is joined by New Mexico State Police Chief Tim Johnson, left, and FBI Special Agent in Charge James Langenberg, right. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/ Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

It is unclear how many juveniles have been charged federally in New Mexico.

But referring cases to federal court is a strategy District Attorney Raúl Torrez has cited recently as a way to seek the detention of defendants pending trial, as well as longer sentences if they are convicted.

“Too many young people have lost their lives to gun violence in our community, and we owe it to them and their loved ones to use every tool at our disposal to prevent more bloodshed,” Torrez said in an emailed statement Wednesday. “That is precisely why we work with our federal law enforcement partners to identify and prosecute individuals like Mr. Valenzuela.”

In Nathaniel Valenzuela’s case, his alleged crimes did not meet the criteria for him to be tried as an adult under New Mexico law, so he would have remained in Children’s Court. However, a federal judge could have decided to try him as an adult in the U.S. District Court for the State of New Mexico.

When Valenzuela was found hanging in his jail cell Sept. 6, a judge had not yet determined whether he should be tried as an adult or a child, according to Valenzuela’s attorney, Robert Cooper. Valenzuela was later declared dead.

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The Bernalillo District Attorney’s Office released Snapchat video of 17-year-old Nathaniel Valenzuela shortly after he was arrested on firearms and drug charges in June. (District Attorney’s Office)

At a news conference shortly after Valenzuela’s arrest, DA Torrez pointed out that many of the juveniles charged in state firearms cases have been released while awaiting trial, so he was in discussions with the U.S. Attorney’s Office about whether federal prosecutors wanted to take Valenzuela’s case.

Shortly after that, the case was turned over to federal prosecutors.

Cooper, who has worked as a contract federal public defender for 25 years, said he was surprised when he learned the details behind his client’s charges.

“Nathaniel was a child that I believe should have been prosecuted in state court,” Cooper said. “He was found with only 60 fentanyl pills, and fentanyl is bad, but that’s not the quantity of drugs that is normally prosecuted in federal court.”

However, Torrez countered that Valenzuela was implicated in four violent felonies – two of which involved firearms – in a six-month period.

“Our investigation further revealed that, in addition to trafficking in fentanyl, Valenzuela also used and possessed multiple firearms, including a modified AR-15 with a high-capacity drum magazine,” Torrez wrote. “While his (death) was tragic, our experience … teaches us that the failure to act can have deadly consequences. As such, we will continue to exercise our discretion to remove dangerous individuals from this community so that all our children can grow up free from harm.”

Cooper said he had visited Valenzuela a day or two before he died and had not noticed anything amiss, although he did say he was worried about being tried as an adult and convicted.

“I think the hopelessness that a 17-year-old boy experiences when facing the possibility of spending eight or nine years in custody … ” Cooper trailed off. “He’s only 17 years old. That’s like 50% of his life at that point.”

There is at least one other teenager in Bernalillo County who is charged in federal court: 17-year-old Xavier Zamora, arrested in April after police say he shot and killed a postal carrier on his route through a West Side neighborhood. Police say Zamora shot Jose Hernandez after he intervened in a confrontation between Zamora and his mother.

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