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Public defender tests positive for COVID-19

Jennifer Burrill, left, a public defender in Santa Fe, represents Chris Garcia, center, in court Tuesday August 20, 2019. Garcia is charged with the murder of Selena Valencia in June 2017. Burrill has tested positive for COVID-19. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A public defender representing clients in the 1st Judicial District in Santa Fe has tested positive for COVID-19.

The attorney, 48-year-old Jennifer Burrill, was confirmed to have the virus Tuesday night.

In a phone interview Wednesday night, Burrill said she has a sharp pain in her lungs, but few other symptoms. She is at her Santa Fe home with two other family members, but plans to continue working while at home.

“I’m going to keep working to try to get my clients out of jail,” she said, adding that she thinks it’s outrageous that so many of them – particularly those accused of non-violent offenses – are still there. “It’s ridiculous that upwards of 50% on the jail population are there for drug and alcohol crimes. It’s ridiculous that they are still in jail.”

Burrill said she hasn’t felt right physically for several weeks now, but she has not run a fever. Her symptoms were a mild headache and cough, but she continued to go to work because she didn’t have a fever.

“We all kind of go to work and don’t feel good sometimes,” she said.

She and two other attorneys from the Law Office of the Public Defender tried to get tested March 4 but were turned away because they didn’t meet the full criteria for getting tested, she said.

Altogether, she tried to get tested four times, she said, before a test was finally done Sunday morning at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center in Santa Fe. By then, she had a severe cough and was experiencing a sharp pain in her lungs.

She didn’t go to work at all this week while awaiting for results.

Jennifer Burrill

In a news release, the Law Office of the Public Defender said office administrators were performing a contact history of the attorney, who it did not name, over the past several days. They have been reaching out to people who potentially could have been in contact with the attorney, according to Maggie Shepard, a spokeswoman for the public defender’s office.

“We will also be doing a deep cleaning of the office,” she said.

The news release states that the attorney “had limited contact with inmates and court personnel” and that the LOPD, located at 301 North Guadalupe in Santa Fe, will remain closed until at least April 12.

Shepard said typically about 50 employees work from the office, including human resources, fiscal and budgetary units.

“Those people have mostly been working at home, but we have had attorneys still coming in to get files,” Shepard said.

She credited the Santa Fe magistrate court and 1st Judicial District Court’s switch to telephonic court hearings, as well as the Santa Fe County jail and the Law Offices of the Public Defender, for taking early preventative measures to reduce the chances of anyone contracting the virus.

Burrill said it’s critical that more testing gets done.

“It’s hard to get tested if you don’t know someone” who has already contracted the virus, she said.

Burrill said she appreciated the steps Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has taken so far to limit the spread, but she needs to do more.

“I applaud her for the things she has done to try to flatten the curve, but the reality is her plan for tackling this is missing a key component and that’s testing,” she said.

Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for the governor’s office, said there’s only so much state government can do.

“The governor wants to test everyone in New Mexico. We want universal testing. But to do that, we need federal help, and that’s not going to happen tomorrow and it’s not going to happen next week,” he said, adding that he was basing his statement on President Donald Trump’s rhetoric. “To be clear about the governor’s intention, right now we have to test symptomatic people, and we’re working to do everything we can on that front.”

As for taking steps to reduce the inmate population in the jails, “That’s a jail question, not a prison question. Certainly counties can do that but the state doesn’t have that leeway,” he said. “To the extent that we would release people, and I’m not an expert on the subject, but I don’t think the state can do that.”

Stelnicki said that the state is doing everything it can to suppress spread of the virus and the administration hopes anyone who has contracted the virus recovers quickly.

“They are in our prayers,” he said.

Burrill said other states have made accommodations for releasing jail inmates, such as releasing non-violent offenders, people over 65 years of age or those with less than a year left on their sentence. She criticized government officials in New Mexico for not doing enough.

“We have a national crisis, we have a state crisis, and nothing has been done to get non-violent offenders out of jail. If it gets into the jails, and I can’t see how it hasn’t already, it will spread like wildfire,” she said, adding that it’s almost impossible to keep people away from each other in a densely populated jail. “They are sitting ducks.”

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