New Mexico can be a very dangerous place to be a child.
We had the sixth-highest rates of child maltreatement in the country in 2019, according to legislative analysts, and our child abuse death rate more than doubled in 2020. Recent developments in child-beating cases resulting in death have only reinforced that bad reputation.
Two men are headed for life sentences for their roles in the 2019 deaths of two children in separate cases. A third defendant, Jessica Kelley, who pleaded no contest in January to six felony crimes stemming from the 2016 death and dismemberment of 10-year-old Victoria Martens, was sentenced to 44 years in prison on April 28 for her role in one of Albuquerque’s most horrific crimes.
In New Mexico, a life sentence means a defendant is eligible for parole after 30 years in prison. Under Kelley’s plea, she got 50 years, with 6 suspended, but there are no stipulations barring her from accumulating up to day-for-day time off for good behavior, a spokeswoman for the state’s prison system confirmed.
That means she could become eligible for parole years earlier than the two men who agreed to life sentences in their plea deals, even though she was part of a heinous murder scene that shocked the community.
Albuquerquean Zerrick Marquez, 28, pleaded guilty last week and faces a life sentence for the Dec. 10, 2019, beating death of his roommate’s 4-year-old son, James Dunklee. He pleaded guilty to child abuse, intentionally caused, resulting in death. Assistant District Attorney Savannah Brandenburg-Koch said Marquez “acted intentionally, which we would be able to prove with ongoing messages between him and his codefendants, of long-term abuse to James Dunklee” that ended with his death.
Last Friday, an Albuquerque man who pleaded guilty to beating his 5-year-old daughter to death with a shoe in 2019 also was sentenced to life in prison. Brandon Reynolds, 39, pleaded guilty April 28 to intentional child abuse resulting in the death of a child, according to the agreement. He told police he was “triggered” after Sarah Dubois-Gilbeau said she did not want to do homework, and admitted striking her with a water shoe all over her body, prosecutors said in court records.
Kelley was charged with intentional child abuse resulting in death and first-degree murder. If convicted, she would have faced a life sentence. Instead, Kelley pleaded no contest in January 2019 to six felonies, including reckless child abuse resulting in the death of a child under 12. The plea means she does not admit guilt, but is not contesting the state’s version of events.
The judge imposed the maximum sentence under the plea, which was agreed to by the parties, according to a Second Judicial District Attorney spokesperson.
Under the circumstances, it’s difficult to blame the DA’s Office for negotiating a plea deal. The state would have been hard pressed to prove Kelley played a direct role in the girl’s murder. Most of what was reported about the crime was derived from a confession by the girl’s mother determined to be false and that 2nd Judicial District Attorney Raúl Torrez said was “contaminated” by detectives who interviewed her. Kelley’s acceptance of the state’s version of events and her willingness to testify should help convict the only defendant facing trial — authorities have yet to find who they believe is the actual killer. Details of this tragic case are on the front page of the April 29 Albuquerque Journal.
The bottom line? Outrage over sentencing of child-beaters and negligent adults who fail to protect children, while natural, is wide of the mark. Better to light a candle — do a better job of protecting children — than to curse the darkness.
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.