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Volunteer attorneys to prosecute rape kit backlog cases

Attorney Randi McGinn speaks about Project Predator, in which about 40 attorneys will be sworn in as special prosecutors with the District Attorney’s Office to try cases associated with the rape kit backlog. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis / Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

It’s been a little over three years since then-state Auditor Tim Keller announced New Mexico had the highest rate of untested rape kits in the country. There were 5,302 untested kits, some dating back to the 1980s, throughout the state. Almost 4,000 of them were in the Albuquerque area.

Now, the city hopes to finish testing its remaining 20 or so backlogged kits within the next couple of months.

But that doesn’t mean the work will be over.

Detectives have to investigate cases further and make arrests, the District Attorney’s Office has to prosecute defendants, and those defendants have to go to trial, often with the help of a public defender.

In a news conference Wednesday, 2nd Judicial District Attorney Raúl Torrez said his office is getting ready for the influx.

Torrez, Mayor Tim Keller and attorney Randi McGinn announced that about 40 private attorneys have volunteered to work for free as special prosecutors and help the District Attorney’s Office prosecute suspects identified through the testing of the backlog. McGinn, a high-profile attorney, volunteered to lead the effort, called Project Predator.

Torrez said 23 cases have already been assigned to the special prosecutors, and three men have been indicted and are awaiting trial. All three cases occurred in 2015, according to online court records.

“We anticipate over the next couple of years there will be a couple hundred of these SAKI (Sexual Assault Kit Initiative) backlog cases that will be coming through the District Attorney’s Office,” Torrez said. “The participation and willingness to serve makes it easier for our attorneys and our prosecutors to move quickly through the other parts of the system.”

In addition to the special prosecutors, there are four prosecutors in the office who are funded through the SAKI grant to specifically work on backlog cases, according to a spokesman for the DA’s Office.

However, attorneys with the Law Office of the Public Defender, who are likely to represent many of the defendants charged in these cases, will not be receiving the same kind of grant funding and volunteer support as the prosecutors.

“These are among the most complex cases, even when they aren’t decades old,” Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur said in a statement. “The Public Defender’s Office is ready to represent indigent defendants on these cases – even though we’ve received no additional funding specifically to do so.”

As for staffing at APD, Deputy Chief of Police Arturo Gonzalez told the news conference that there are 10 sex crimes detectives and that they are investigating current cases as well as backlog cases.

He said they have about 400 hits in the Combined DNA Index System now and expect that to increase.

“We feel confident with the people that we have over there,” Gonzalez said. “(They) are going to go ahead and do what’s needed.”

Gonzalez said the detectives are basically redoing the original cases and re-interviewing victims and witnesses.

“It’s a ton of work,” Gonzalez said.

But after the news conference, Torrez expressed some concerns about the workload for APD detectives when they have several hundred new cases to investigate.

“I think they are struggling to balance all their competing needs — their investigative needs, their Department of Justice compliance — it’s going to be increasingly difficult to keep up with the current workload and the investigative requirements of these cases as they come online,” Torrez said. “I know they’re stretched pretty thin.”

At the District Attorney’s Office, the influx of special prosecutors will undergo training to get them up to speed on the office’s protocols, Torrez said. This includes training on the case management order – which imposes strict deadlines on cases – as well as on supporting victims throughout the process.

“There may be some attorneys who have less experience interacting with victims who need specialized support so our victims advocates will be able to fill that in and work with these prosecutors,” he said.

McGinn actually worked in the District Attorney’s Office at the beginning of her career, in the 1980s. More recently, she was appointed as a special prosecutor to prosecute Keith Sandy and Dominique Perez, APD officers who shot and killed James Boyd, a homeless man, in the Sandia foothills.

“I think there are other members of the team that have direct prosecutorial experience, but my sense is that most do not,” Torrez said. “But what they do have is a lot of courtroom experience. They know how to try a case.”

McGinn said the attorneys, many of whom are members of the New Mexico Trial Lawyers Association, have made careers defending underdogs.

“The trial lawyers association is about 600 lawyers from around the state who typically represent David or his wife against the Goliaths of this world, the big insurance companies or the big trucking companies when people get hurt,” McGinn said. “So it was a natural fit for them to step in and try to protect the women of Albuquerque.”

And Keller said the conversation on how to ultimately prosecute the cases has been ongoing for a while.

“In many ways, getting the backlog tested, that’s probably the easiest part of this,” Keller said. “We’re proud and honored to be able to do that as a city. But we need our community, the legal community, and the District Attorney’s Office to see through that hard criminal justice process.”

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