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Editorial: False confessions mean we need an outside look at APD’s Vigil, Martens homicide investigations

The killing of Jacqueline Vigil as she sat in her car getting ready to go to the gym last November shocked Albuquerque like few other crimes since the 2016 death of Victoria Martens, a 10-year-old girl who was killed, dismembered and set on fire in her apartment.

The details around Victoria’s death were so macabre and disturbing they captured national attention. The shooting death of Jacque Vigil, the 55-year-old mother of two State Police officers, burrowed into public consciousness because it was so cold-blooded and random. It’s easy for anyone to visualize themselves in the driver’s seat of Vigil’s car at 5 a.m., a piece of fruit in one hand, the vehicle running and in reverse, when she was shot in the head through the window by a man who walked up to her car.

So there was a collective sigh of relief last week when District Attorney Raúl Torrez announced his office was charging Luis Talamantes-Romero, 32, with murder, aggravated burglary and evidence tampering in Jacque Vigil’s death.

Talamantes-Romero, a Mexican national with a long criminal record, was being held by federal authorities in Texas on felony illegal reentry into the United States. The FBI entered the case last summer and spelled out many of the alleged details of the Vigil shooting in court documents asking a federal judge to increase any sentence in the immigration case. But murder on its own isn’t a federal crime. It’s a state matter.

“Mr. Talamantes belongs in front of a New Mexico jury and needs to be held accountable by this community for taking the life of an extraordinary woman,” Torrez said in announcing the charges.

Agreed. And we can all hope the prosecution of Talamantes-Romero goes better than the Martens case – which to a large extent has fallen apart – because there is another common denominator here: APD investigations in both cases were problematic and included false – arguably coerced – confessions. Because there’s nothing like a confession to make your case.

Unless it isn’t true.

In the Vigil case, a man told special agents with the DA’s Office that “one of the detectives was angry during the interview and he falsely affirmed their version of events for him to end the interview.” Under duress, the man claimed he was in the car when Talamantes-Romero shot Jacque Vigil. He wasn’t there. That kind of police work can be the death knell of a prosecution.

It certainly derailed the Martens case, where many of the charges have been dropped. At this point, no one faces murder charges in the girl’s horrific death.

Michelle Martens, her boyfriend Fabian Gonzales and his cousin, ex-con Jessica Kelley, all were charged with murder and other crimes after Victoria’s body was found in her apartment. Michelle Martens gave a gripping confession about how they killed and dismembered her daughter. Only it wasn’t true. She and Gonzales weren’t even there. They were across town buying drugs.

Michelle Martens eventually pleaded guilty to one count of child abuse resulting in death – basically for leaving the girl at home with a high-on-meth Jessica Kelley. She faces up to 15 years in prison. A forensic psychiatrist working with the DA’s Office says detectives who interviewed Michelle Martens fed her details about the case that made her false confession sound legitimate.

The false confession wasn’t the only problem. For example, it also took too long to check phone records that proved Gonzales and Michelle Martens weren’t there. Nine of the charges against Gonzales were dropped, although he still faces charges of child abuse resulting in death and tampering with evidence. He’s been free on pretrial release, and his attorney says he won’t agree to a plea deal because he’s innocent.

Kelley now says a well-dressed man came to the apartment and murdered Victoria to exact revenge for something Gonzales had done.

“We are disappointed the prosecution settled for a child-abuse conviction against Jessica Kelley for her brutal murder and dismemberment of Victoria Martens,” said attorney Steve Aarons, who represents Gonzales. “On the other hand, by pleading and agreeing to testify as the prosecution’s star witness, Kelley will be subject to cross examination.”

Translation: Kelley, who pleaded guilty to child abuse resulting in death, aggravated assault and tampering with evidence, faces up to 50 years in prison – a place she is comfortable with given her prior felony convictions – but escapes a murder charge. A deeply flawed witness, she has agreed to testify against Gonzales, who could walk out of the courtroom a free man.

Questions abound. Was there, as Jessica Kelley claims, a well-dressed man at the scene who killed Victoria and supposedly left DNA? Or, as Gonzales’s attorney claims, is Jessica Kelley getting away with murder?

We may never know. APD investigators were so focused on one area that others were not explored in a timely way. And we don’t know how the prosecution of Talamantes-Romero will play out. Are there flaws in that investigation in addition to a false confession? As Vigil’s husband Sam has alleged, was the investigation stalled until the FBI stepped in? Will the false confession and other shortcomings, if they exist, prove problematic?

But this much we do know. APD needs to get its homicide operation in order. Problems in two of the highest-profile murder cases in recent years cannot be ignored. Interim chief Harold Medina said last week he thinks it’s important for the department to continue to “evaluate its performance,” correct any errors and make sure they don’t happen in the future.

Not good enough. Two potentially flawed investigations in high-profile cases that involve false confessions should raise alarm bells – because it’s a safe bet it’s happened more than twice. This needs a critical outside look. Mayor Tim Keller should initiate an independent review of APD’s handling of these cases that would put them under the microscope and recommend any necessary changes and training. The findings should be public.

Justice for Victoria Martens and Jacqueline Vigil demands at least that much.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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