New Mexico high court ruling deprived a victim of justice - Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico high court ruling deprived a victim of justice

The New Mexico Supreme Court building in Santa Fe in 2020. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

In 1987, on a highway outside Poughkeepsie, New York, Thomas Corbin drunkenly steered his car into oncoming traffic.

Brenda Dirago died in the crash.

Corbin received tickets for driving while intoxicated and crossing the center line. He paid the tickets promptly. (The traffic court judge was reportedly unaware of Ms. Dirago’s death.) Only subsequently was he indicted for vehicular homicide.

He fought the indictment all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1990 ruled that the double jeopardy clause of the Fifth Amendment prohibited New York from continuing the prosecution.

“Double jeopardy” is one of those resonant legal phrases whose meaning turns out to be disappointingly prosaic. A criminal defendant is in jeopardy of conviction once the trial starts. Double just means more than once.

The clause prevents a person from being tried again after an acquittal. It also prevents a person being prosecuted twice for the same crime.

There’s an important exception: when a convicted person appeals, seeking a new trial, double jeopardy doesn’t prevent the appellate court from granting the wish.

The problem in Corbin’s case was that the police issued those traffic tickets before completing their investigation into the crash. They should have charged all the offenses in a single proceeding, but didn’t.

That error at the beginning of the case caused the Supreme Court to get all confused at the end. In deciding Corbin’s case it wandered far afield, altering the law of double jeopardy in an unworkable way (that thankfully we don’t need to get into).

Just three years later, the court came to its senses and reversed itself. In the federal system, and in most states, the law of double jeopardy after 1993 went back to what it had been before 1990.

Not in New Mexico. During those three years of confusion, our state Supreme Court developed a unique test for determining when the double jeopardy clause prohibits the prosecution of an accused criminal.

Our court continued on its unique path even after the rest of the nation returned to normality. Today, “double jeopardy” means one thing in New Mexico and something different everywhere else in America.

We’ve only grown more eccentric with time. Consider the recent case of Henry Hildreth Jr. He was charged in Gallup with car theft and inflicting great bodily harm on a household member.

The prosecution failed to turn over important evidence to his appointed attorney, Steven Seeger, until five days before trial. Seeger asked the judge, Robert Aragon, to delay the trial to give him more time to prepare.

It was a reasonable request — the prosecution didn’t oppose it — but Aragon refused. Seeger responded with an epic sulk.

According to the Court of Appeals, “Seeger abdicated his role as an advocate by refusing to engage in jury selection, give an opening statement, present a defense or call any witnesses, subject the State’s witnesses to cross-examination, or give a closing argument on behalf of his client.”

Aragon could have held him in contempt of court, removed him from the case, appointed new defense counsel and referred him to the Disciplinary Board.

Instead, the judge stubbornly proceeded with the farce of a trial. Hildreth was convicted of inflicting great bodily harm on a household member (though acquitted of auto theft — the jury, at least, was doing its job).

Hildreth appealed. The trial had been an all-around disgrace and the prosecution didn’t oppose reversal. The Court of Appeals dutifully reversed the conviction, sending the case back for a new trial. Then our Supreme Court stepped in.

The New Mexico Constitution gives our Supreme Court superintending control over inferior courts. It possessed the tools to discipline Judge Aragon directly.

But instead of using them, the court held that the judge’s conduct was so deplorable that the double jeopardy clause prohibited retrial. That is, the court chastised Aragon by barring the courthouse doors to the alleged victim of a violent crime.

I don’t think any other court in the country would do that. For that matter, I don’t think any other court would even perceive a double jeopardy issue. Phrasing the matter as diplomatically as I can, our court’s approach was unusual.

Which reveals a crucial truth: The result it reached wasn’t inevitable. The justices didn’t have to treat the victim as a nonperson. (The word “victim” appears once in the opinion. He or she is not otherwise acknowledged.) They had choices.

When the justices of our Supreme Court chose to make our double jeopardy jurisprudence even weirder than it already was, they “punished” an erring judge in a way that didn’t even inconvenience him. In doing so, they deprived an innocent person of the protection of the law.

Joel Jacobsen is an author who in 2015 retired from a 29-year legal career. If there are topics you would like to see covered in future columns, please write him at legal.column.tips@gmail.com.

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