Details emerge in wrongful arrest of teen for homicide - Albuquerque Journal

Details emerge in wrongful arrest of teen for homicide

Gisell Estrada (top right) can be seen alongside the two Facebook photos of Alexis Pina used by Albuquerque police detective Jessie Carter to wrongfully identify Estrada as a homicide suspect in 2019. (Source: APD)
Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

An Albuquerque Police Department detective was suspended for four days following an internal affairs investigation into the botched identification that left an innocent 17-year-old charged with murder and locked up for six days in 2019.

Jessie Carter, a former APD homicide detective, was recently suspended for 32 hours without pay for the mistaken identity of Gisell Estrada as a murder suspect. Rick Ingram, a former APD homicide sergeant and Carter’s supervisor at the time, was given a letter of reprimand.

Recently released documents obtained through an Inspection of Public Records Act request detail the Internal Affairs investigation into Carter, Ingram and Scott Norris, who supervised the Criminal Investigations Bureau at the time and was not disciplined for the incident.

Both Carter and Ingram have since left the homicide unit. Carter is now on the U.S. Marshals Task Force and Ingram took a position at the Crime Lab before becoming a sergeant in the Northeast command.

Carter, who has been with the department since 2008, joined the homicide unit five years ago and has been the lead detective on a number of homicide cases involving teenagers.

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico is suing the city of Albuquerque over Estrada’s wrongful imprisonment.

The IA investigation said it was a “fundamental oversight” for Carter not to have conducted follow-up interviews to confirm the identity. Investigators also concluded that Prosecutor Natalie Lyon failed to scrutinize the investigation due to a “fondness” for Carter’s prior work and just signed off on the arrest warrant for Estrada.

In response to the findings, Lauren Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office, said “like the judge who approved the warrant in this case, our prosecutor determined that there was probable cause for an arrest based on the information provided in the affidavit by the detective in this case.”

She said subsequent revelations about the deficiencies in the investigation made the DA’s office reevaluate its warrant review procedures – and prosecutors now require a more detailed account of the steps taken to identify potential suspects.

“These added requirements are especially important when working with agencies that provide little to no specialized training for their detectives,” Rodriguez said.

For his part, Ingram “failed to manage” how Carter was conducting his homicide investigations, leading to an incomplete investigation and the wrongful arrest, according to the internal affairs investigation.

“It cannot be overstated that basic investigative steps would have easily excluded this juvenile from (Carter’s) case had he waited on the information, followed up appropriately and not skipped basic steps of good detective work,” Deputy Chief Michael Smathers wrote in a Sept. 1 memo to police Chief Harold Medina.

Attorney John D’Amato, who represented Carter, criticized the internal affairs investigation.

“If you’re going to do a fair investigation, do it within 90 – or 120 days of the incident,” he said. “… There’s a contract, there’s a standard operating procedure and there is a settlement agreement, all of which call for 90-day to 120-day investigations.”

D’Amato said, in hindsight, any case can be done better, and he noted that Carter was relying on the word of the school resource officer when he arrested Estrada.

“Any case, pick a case out of PD, pick a case out of any lawyer’s office – and (ask) ‘could they have done something more?’ – If the answer is ‘yes,’ 32 hours suspension because you didn’t. So yeah, I have a problem with the case,” he said.

The murder case

It started when a suspect in the July 10 robbery-turned-slaying of Calvin Kelly, 21, showed Carter the Facebook profile of “Lexi,” the girl who allegedly masterminded the crime.

Carter sent two photos from the profile to an Albuquerque High School resource officer, and an administrator identified her as Estrada, a student aide. Lyon then signed off on an arrest warrant charging Estrada with an open count of murder, armed robbery and conspiracy.

Carter arrested Estrada on Nov. 8, despite the teen and her attorney telling him he had the wrong girl, and she was booked into the juvenile detention center.

Five days later, another suspect arrested in Kelly’s homicide told Carter “you have the wrong Lexi, I just spoke to her yesterday.” Estrada was released on her own recognizance the next day and Carter identified Alexis Pina as the suspect known as “Lexi.”

The IA investigation

APD Commander Dennis Tafoya submitted a referral for an investigation on March 24, 2021, three months after the ACLU filed a lawsuit, claiming Carter “failed to conduct a thorough investigation” in the case.

The IA investigation found the probable cause for Estrada’s arrest relied mainly on secondhand confirmation from a school resource officer after a school employee “felt they knew the identity” of a homicide suspect.

Text messages in the file show Carter sent the officer two photos of Alexis Pina wearing heavy makeup and striking a pose, both selfies. The officer replied “still active student here now” before Carter asked “what is her name.”

In response, the officer sent a detailed student profile of Estrada that included a photo.

Following an interview with Carter, investigators found he did not “articulate any additional investigative steps” he could have taken “to add some substance to what was at best a good lead.” Carter also didn’t conduct a follow-up interview with the school employee to assess her certainty that Estrada was the suspect.

“The school employee saying a picture ‘looks like’ someone is nowhere near any threshold of probable cause or thorough detective work,” an investigator wrote.

Carter told investigators that Estrada’s attorney did not provide any evidence to him that she was not the suspect before he was reminded that a defense attorney’s participation was not mandatory and probable cause “always rests solely on the police.”

Carter also said he was in constant communication with Lyon and she approved the warrant, which investigators said was a “compelling fact and provides some mitigation.”

Lyon told investigators she “had no reason not to believe what (Carter) said” and “we trust what our detectives are doing.” Lyon said Carter was “old-school” and detailed in his casework, adding she enjoyed working with him more than anyone else in the homicide unit.

“I think very highly of (Carter) and it was very unfortunate that this case happened to him because I think he is a fantastic detective,” Lyon told investigators. “… He could’ve trained a lot of those homicide detectives to do more than what they were doing.”

Investigators found Lyon’s statement was “poor and not very helpful,” centering on her respect and “fondness for” the detective and his “overall reputation for quality, detailed work.”

“The reputation of detective Carter provided comfort to (Lyon) and she did not scrupulously review his work on the arrest warrant affidavit and made a perfunctory decision to approve it,” an investigator wrote.

Investigators wrote the “harder truth in this matter” is that APD and Carter “alone stand responsible and liable for the investigative work” that led to Estrada’s wrongful arrest.

Carter told investigators he had never had his work “questioned in this way” or been the subject of an IA investigation.

Investigators noted that Carter’s career “to date” had been commendable but “none of that addresses the realities of this case.” In the end, Carter was found to have violated APD policy and served his 32-hour suspension between Sept. 24 and Nov. 5.

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