Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Social media postings are causing problems in the long-delayed trial of a leader of a paramilitary religious sect on charges of sexually assaulting a minor.
A former prosecutor in the case was reprimanded by District Judge Amanda Sanchez Villalobos for comments made on Facebook after she released the defendant, Peter Green, from jail despite the objections of state prosecutors.
Prosecutors have since asked Sanchez Villalobos to recuse herself from the case because of Facebook posts made by her husband, Victor Villalobos, about the case.
Victor Villalobos is also his wife’s campaign chairman for her judicial campaign. He was critical of the job prosecutors had done and said there was a good chance for an acquittal if they didn’t do better.
Sanchez Villalobos was appointed to the bench last year by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. She was unopposed in the Democratic primary, and no Republicans ran for the seat in their primary.
Law enforcement officials identified Green in 2017 as a lieutenant colonel in the Aggressive Christianity Missions Training Corps, which was based near Fence Lake, southwest of Grants.
He is charged with four counts of criminal sexual penetration of a minor under age 13. Four other counts of criminal sexual contact with a minor under age 13 were dismissed earlier this year by Sanchez Villalobos.
That case was filed in 2017, and another case charging Green with sexual assault, kidnapping and other crimes was filed in 2019. The cases involve different children, and some of the allegations date to 2012 and earlier.
After a hearing in January, Sanchez Villalobos ordered Green released from jail and placed under house arrest in Albuquerque with an electronic tracking ankle bracelet.
Green had spent more than 2½ years in jail awaiting trial in the 2017 case, which is scheduled to begin later this summer.
After the January hearing and Green’s release, Assistant District Attorney Mandana Shoushtari had an exchange on her personal Facebook page with a friend regarding a Facebook posting by KOB-TV.
During that exchange, Shoushtari said, “My strength comes from the two beautiful young ladies who became his survivors. I pray that I can once again by the grace of god be a means to get them justice.”
She also mentioned that two other members of the sect had already been sentenced to prison.
Sanchez Villalobos ruled on a series of defense motions, finding “some prosecutorial misconduct with regard to the Facebook posts.”
She noted during a hearing that the court had been trying to keep the two cases separated, and while some of the information had been made public, she was disturbed by Shoushtari’s Facebook posts.
Shoushtari left the 13th Judicial District Attorney’s Office after the hearing to run in the Democratic Party primary for district attorney, which she lost.
Sanchez Villalobos ordered the new prosecutors in the case to submit affidavits saying that they had read the rules prohibiting attorneys from making false statements outside a courtroom or making statement creating a danger of prejudicing the proceedings in cases that may be tried before a jury.
Sanchez Villalobos also ordered that new prosecutors in the case were not to have contact with Shoushtari about the case unless it was approved by the court.
Prosecutors said they intend to appeal Sanchez Villalobos’ order prohibiting contact with Shoushtari.
The same prosecutors are now asking Sanchez Villalobos to remove herself from the Green case.
They argue in court filings that the judge’s husband and campaign manager Victor Villalobos’ Facebook posts may have put her under a cloud of the appearance of impropriety.
Victor Villalobos said in a Facebook post, “If (the January 28, 2020) hearing is any indication of what the trial will look like, don’t be surprised if he is found not guilty or acquitted because hear-say won’t be admissible in court. Hopefully the state will present a better case but that’s unlikely.”
Victor Villalobos was defending his wife, according to the court filings, from other Facebook posts attacking her order releasing Green from jail.
Prosecutors said in their filing that “his commentary may constitute an appearance of bias and improper influence on the part of the court.”
Under the rules of professional conduct, judges are supposed to keep their campaign workers under a tight rein, and prosecutors argue that her campaign manager can’t make statements that Sanchez Villalobos would be prohibited from making.
Green’s attorney, Kari Morrissey, said in court filings that Sanchez Villalobos has ruled in the prosecution’s favor 70% of the time and has not shown any bias against the District Attorney’s Office.
She said any member of the public could have witnessed the hearing and reached the same conclusions Victor Villalobos did without having any conversation with the judge.
“The state’s motion is an obvious attempt at retaliating against a Judge who entered a finding of prosecutorial misconduct,” Morrissey said in asking Sanchez Villalobos to deny the motion for recusal.