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DA, feds join forces against ‘violent crime epidemic’

These criminals were prosecuted as part of the “worst of the worst” initiative, which targets repeat offenders and charges them in federal court where the sentences are harsher. From left are Thomas Martinez, Elias Atencio and Gabriel Mirabal. (Albuquerque Journal)

These criminals were prosecuted as part of the “worst of the worst” initiative, which targets repeat offenders and charges them in federal court where the sentences are harsher. From left are Thomas Martinez, Elias Atencio and Gabriel Mirabal. (Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

Thomas Martinez was a one-man crime wave, racking up multiple robberies, three carjackings in one day and a home invasion before he was arrested.

He was sentenced to 27½ years.

Gabriel Mirabal, a crack dealer arrested as part of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s “Operation Rio Grande Stucco,” got 36 years.

Elias Atencio, who robbed four Santa Fe businesses in 12 days, was sentenced to 20 years.

All were prosecuted as part of the ongoing “worst of the worst” initiative, in which prosecutors in New Mexico target people with long criminal histories and charge them in federal court, where the sentences are often harsher, instead of state court.

The program got a major boost Thursday.

Four prosecutors from the 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque will be named special assistant U.S. attorneys in order to help fight what officials called a “violent crime epidemic” in New Mexico.

Damon Martinez, the U.S. Attorney for the District of New Mexico, announced the additions alongside a bipartisan group of district attorneys from across the state.

U. S. Attorney Damon Martinez, left, listens to 2nd Judicial District Attorney Raúl Torrez on Thursday when the announcement was made that four prosecutors from the DA's Office will be named special assistant U. S. attorneys to help fight what officials called a "violent crime epidemic" in New Mexico. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

U. S. Attorney Damon Martinez, left, listens to 2nd Judicial District Attorney Raúl Torrez on Thursday when the announcement was made that four prosecutors from the DA’s Office will be named special assistant U. S. attorneys to help fight what officials called a “violent crime epidemic” in New Mexico. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

“The idea is, ‘How do we maximize our return on investment for each defendant that we take to trial,’ ” 2nd Judicial District Attorney Raúl Torrez said.

In recent years, thousands of cases have been dismissed and haven’t been refiled, in part due to fears by prosecutors that they couldn’t meet disclosure deadlines. In that time, Albuquerque’s crime rate has increased significantly and police have often complained about what they say is a revolving door at the Metropolitan Detention Center.

Torrez said an emphasis on federal prosecutions for some criminals may help solve those issues.

In addition to longer sentences for people convicted of crimes, he said federal court release and detention guidelines allow prosecutors to keep certain inmates behind bars while they await trial.

“The gun crimes and the applicable statutes that we use in federal court are simply better tools for making this a safer community,” he said. “Oftentimes we find ourselves in state district court with violent repeat offenders who frankly don’t receive the kind of punishment they deserve after convictions, and oftentimes we have difficulty detaining those individuals in advance of trial.”

The special prosecutors will continue to be state employees and work at the District Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque, but the designation will allow them to try cases in federal court, where criminals face longer sentences.

For example, a felon in possession of a firearm conviction in state court only carries an 18-month sentence, and convicts can be released after nine months. That same conviction in federal court, if the defendant is proven to be an armed career criminal, would carry a mandatory minimum of 15 years.

“That’s where the hammer is,” Martinez said.

The program has existed for several years, but there have only been special prosecutors in the judicial districts in and around Farmington, Las Cruces and Roswell. Albuquerque has not had any.

“We go and identify the people that just seem to keep coming back and causing problems in our community,” said Rick Tedrow, the district attorney in Farmington. “We’ve used this program to get them out of San Juan County.”

Officials from the Office of the Federal Public Defender in the District of New Mexico declined to comment on the initiative on Thursday.

Tedrow said he’s comfortable with federal prosecutors taking over certain local cases because the authorities work together on which charges should be brought.

“As a conservative, state’s rights Republican, it takes a lot for me to say, ‘Yes, feds, you take over,’ ” he said. “But right now, the collaboration that we have works. I can say ‘take it’ or ‘don’t.’ ”

Martinez said the program is needed because of the rising violent crime in the state. He said statewide, violent crimes jumped 13.6 percent over the first six months in 2015 compared to 2014. And Albuquerque saw a significant increase in violent crime in 2016 compared to the year before.

“Violent crime is what we’re talking about here,” Martinez said. “Here’s the message that we, in partnership, are trying to convey to the community: ‘Something is being done.’ ”

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