Torrez: Willingness to ruffle feathers is an asset, not a liability - Albuquerque Journal

Torrez: Willingness to ruffle feathers is an asset, not a liability

County District Attorney Raúl Torrez in his office in Downtown Albuquerque. Torrez touts his career as a prosecutor, and after being elected district attorney in 2017, he faced an 8,000-case backlog. He has created a crime strategies unit, using technology to catch criminals. He is running against Brian Colón in the Democratic primary for attorney general, with a chance to face Republican Jeremy Gay in November. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

Raúl Torrez had left his job as an assistant attorney general to begin a White House fellowship when he got the news that a controversial manslaughter case he had filed against three Raton police officers in the 2007 death of a suspect was on the skids.

A new medical investigator assigned to the case before trial had changed the cause of death to accidental, and then-AG Gary King ultimately dismissed the case in 2009.

“I remember being the first person from the state of New Mexico to go and talk to the family of this dead young man. His father was telling me in Spanish that no one from the government had ever talked to him, had ever cared about his boy. When I left New Mexico for D.C., I thought the case was going to be pursued aggressively and it just wasn’t.”

The experience sticks with Torrez, now the 2nd Judicial District Attorney in Bernalillo County, as he seeks to become the next state attorney general. He faces State Auditor Brian Colón in the June 7 Democratic primary for the nomination.

“What I learned is that, if I wanted to have the ability to initiate and have the kind of change that I wanted to see, I need to be able to have a position of authority. It kind of inspired me to recognize that, if I wasn’t the actual person making the ultimate decision, that I couldn’t control the outcome.”

In his second four-year term as DA, Torrez is proud of his “uncompromising approach” to prosecuting criminals and trying to keep them from revictimizing society even though he has alienated some lawmakers and judges along the way.

“I have this sense of urgency. Part of this is rooted in the fact that people are getting hurt, and people are dying, and I see it. It’s not theoretical.”

He’s weathered some defeats, such as last legislative session when he led an effort, backed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Mayor Tim Keller, to change the method by which state judges determine whether a defendant will be released pending trial. He advocates a model used in federal court that makes it easier for judges to detain suspects charged with certain violent crimes prior to trial.

The debate over whether bail reform is keeping the community safe is occurring in Albuquerque and in other U.S. cities where crime has risen. So far the data shows a small percentage of criminals commit new crimes if released pending trial. But Torrez vows to continue working on pretrial detention reform, which he admits is “a politically complicated thing to do.”

Earlier this year, he fought back when legislative analysts cited statistics showing his office’s conviction rate for violent crimes had dropped to 59% in 2020 – the year the pandemic hit. Torrez countered that his office data showed a 78.5% conviction rate for violent felonies that year.

Torrez attributed some dismissals to witnesses not appearing. And some state cases were dismissed due to a practice he began several years ago in which more than 500 serious felonies, many involving firearms, have been sent to the U.S. Attorney’s Office to prosecute. Typically, such defendants are more often held pending trial in federal court and sentences upon conviction are often stiffer.

“I say the hard, uncomfortable, difficult things that need to be said, because they’re being said by the victims that we serve, and they’re being said by the people in my community who are scared about crime,” Torrez said in an interview last week. “They don’t care what’s politically convenient or inconvenient for this party. They want the problem solved.”

Torrez, 45, said he believes the next attorney general needs to be independent, not political. And the focus needs to be “on the rule of law and on the rules. So this idea of my ruffling feathers, and my willingness to ruffle feathers is not a liability. It’s an asset. It’s essential to doing the job. There needs to be a certain separation from politics.”

He believes that kind of independence is crucial in representing taxpayers’ interest in complex civil litigation against big corporations and in cases of public corruption, which are key roles of the AG’s Office.

Torrez also acknowledges that the AG’s Office will not have the front-line impact on violent crime that the DA’s offices do in terms of numbers of cases prosecuted.

“(As a DA,) I’m a Walmart compared to what is basically a boutique (at the AG’s office).”

The Jesse Saenz case

The 2007 death of Jesse Saenz of Raton was “a politically sensitive in-custody death in a small town,” Torrez told the Journal last week.

“That is precisely the kind of thing that the Attorney General’s Office can do. If the AG’s Office isn’t politically willing to take it on, if it’s not sufficiently staffed with the right kind of people who are trained and prepared to take it on, there are certainly things, cases, that will go unattended.”

Saenz, who police arrested on a charge of criminal damage to property, was tased, handcuffed and restrained face down by officers in the back of a patrol car. One sat on top of him, Torrez recalled. By the time he arrived at the jail, he was lifeless, Torrez said.

“There was no way the local district attorney was going to prosecute the case,” Torrez added. As a prosecutor with the AG’s Office, Torrez said he initiated an investigation, with support from two New Mexico State Police detectives. After months of work, the officers were indicted for manslaughter. As he was getting ready for trial as the lead prosecutor, Torrez received a call from the Obama administration to do his fellowship.

After he left the AG’s Office, a new pathologist who hadn’t examined the body changed the original OMI ruling, determining the death was attributable to cocaine in Saenz’s system, Torrez recalled.

The year after criminal charges were dismissed, the city of Raton agreed to a $1 million settlement of an excessive force lawsuit filed by Saenz’s estate.

Combating crime

Torrez, the son of longtime federal prosecutor Presiliano Torrez, is a graduate of Harvard. He went to the London School of Economics before opting to return to New Mexico to become a prosecutor.

After his stint with King’s AG’s Office, Torrez served as an assistant U.S. attorney. He also took time out to work in the Silicon Valley tech world, which he said opened his eyes years later to the value of using cutting edge technology to catch criminals and prosecute crimes in Albuquerque.

After his election to district attorney in 2017, he said he inherited a District Attorney’s Office in disarray, with 40-year-old unindicted homicide cases. He had an 8,000-case backlog.

Since tackling the backlog, he has created a crime strategies unit, which analyzes social media and phone forensics, and has tapped forensic genealogy to catch and charge two men in rapes that had gone unsolved for years.

He’s also emphasized pre-prosecution diversion and addiction treatment for certain defendants who can “get their lives back together.” His office now publishes a list on its website of law enforcement officers who have been identified in criminal court filings as having potential credibility issues such as dishonesty, bias, criminal acts or misconduct.

Torrez touts his “extraordinarily strong relationship with the business community” and with environmental groups.

He’s also enlisted help from New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology and from volunteers from Sandia National Labs in the quest of “using data and analytics to be smart and strategic in solving crime.”

When Torrez graduated from Stanford Law School, most of his friends from school were going to $160,000-a-year jobs. He took a $37,000-a-year position at the DA’s Office in Valencia County.

“I’m still paying student loans off,” Torrez said. His wife, Nasha Torrez, is also an attorney. They have two children, ages 9 and 12.

Torrez says he sometimes thinks twice about the career path he has taken, but gets a dose of “what matters” when he speaks with victims and their families.

Torrez was accused in an ad endorsed by Democrat AG candidate Brian Colón of having caused the death of a UNM baseball player Jackson Weller in May 2019.

The man ultimately convicted in the death, Darian Bashir, had faced an earlier felony charge related to a non-fatal shooting in 2017, but a judge dismissed the case after a series of procedural missteps by one of Torrez’s prosecutors, who was later fired. Bashir was re-arrested for shooting at or from a motor vehicle, and Torrez’s office sought to keep Bashir in jail citing his dangerousness, but a judge found insufficient criteria existed to detain him.

A month later Weller was killed in Downtown Albuquerque.

Weller’s father Patrick Weller last week called for Colón to take the campaign commercial down, saying his son’s likeness was used without the family’s permission. Weller also called the ad “misleading,” adding that Torrez and his office “aren’t responsible” for Jackson’s death. (Colón has refused).

Torrez said his office is in “a never ending process of engineering and re-engineering the system that we use.”

“I’ve got 100 lawyers in the building and 100,000 cases in five years. We’re going to have problems. And not only that, we’re an institution that is dependent on other institutions.”

Early life

Torrez points out that he flunked kindergarten because he needed more structure. So his parents put him in “advanced kindergarten.” He became an athlete at Sandia Preparatory School while excelling academically.

He recalls debating Chinese trade policy at the age of 13 at St. John’s College in Santa Fe. He was the youngest person on the Model UN debate team.

As the son of a criminal prosecutor, he recalls as a boy, “being out in places, and people coming up to my dad and they were strangers (victims or their families) and they would cry and hug him.”

“Part of the reason for trying to seek leadership positions is that I could see that my dad was making a difference one case at a time. He was helping people. I started thinking, if I got into a position of authority, I can really help. I could help thousands of people. But as my wife would say, it doesn’t come without a cost.”

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