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Judge orders adequate counsel for indigent defendants

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A judge concerned about representation of indigent criminal defendants in a southeastern New Mexico judicial district has ordered key players to submit proposed findings to her within 10 days.

The order came after the court took hours of testimony last week on what she has called a “crisis” in getting representation.

As an interim matter, 12th District Judge Karen Parsons of Carrizozo ordered the Law Offices of the New Mexico Public Defender to provide adequate counsel by Oct. 11 to any qualifying defendant who didn’t have a lawyer. The district includes Lincoln and Otero counties.

Michael Stout, chair of the New Mexico Public Defender Commission and one of the individuals who testified at the hearing, said that would mean finding legal counsel for some 298 individuals accused of crimes.

Parsons’ order, entered Friday, also said any indigent defendants brought to the attention of the public defender after the hearing should have a lawyer within 48 hours, consistent with the office’s stated policy.

“This policy has not been followed in the 12th Judicial District in numerous instances and cases,” she said in the order. “This is an emergency situation leaving defendants unprotected from violations of their Constitution(al) right to counsel … and must be addressed immediately.”

The Indigent Defense Act requires the Public Defender to provide counsel under the state and federal constitutions.

Parsons ordered the Public Defender office to report compliance and to notify the court immediately of any failure to meet deadlines.

Ruidoso attorney Gary Mitchell forced the issue of funding for indigent defense, particularly in Lincoln County where he has long represented multiple defendants on a contract basis. Mitchell filed motions in those cases, supplemented by documents showing the extent to which he has personally subsidized indigent defense, asking for judicial proceedings to be halted until the state provides sufficient money for contract counsel. Alternatively, he asked for charges against his clients to be dismissed.

Contract counsel has been paid on a flat-fee basis for years, but the public defender commission last spring has adopted a resolution seeking payment of $85 per hour for those attorneys. Putting that into effect statewide, however, would require a significant funding increase by the Legislature.