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Thursday, February 27, 2003

Ex-DA To Examine 1995 Death

By Colleen Heild
Journal Investigative Reporter
    Witnesses have died. Photos of the scene have disappeared. Memories of the event are more than seven years old.
    But a special prosecutor will take the next 30 days to determine whether there is evidence implicating State Police Lt. Mark McCracken in the mysterious death of his wife, Melanie, in 1995.
    Valencia County District Attorney Lemuel Martinez on Wednesday turned the case over to former District Attorney Randall Harris of Clovis, who has been in private practice since leaving office last June.
    "Without predicting what's going to happen ... I believe Randy Harris is the person who's going to make it happen," Martinez said.
    Harris said he will determine "whether the case should go to a grand jury, a preliminary hearing or whether there is insufficient evidence to go forward."
    Both Melanie McCracken's mother, Nancy Grice, and Melanie's husband welcomed the announcement.
    "It's a giant step, isn't it?" a tearful Grice said after a news conference announcing Harris' appointment. "This has breathed life back into the possibility that justice will be served."
    Mark McCracken's attorney, Peter Schoenburg, said in a telephone interview that he welcomed Harris' involvement.
    "We're hoping an independent and objective prosecutor will recognize that there was no crime committed in the death of Melanie McCracken."
    Mark McCracken has said he had nothing to do with his wife's death, and Schoenburg on Wednesday suggested the woman may have killed herself in a way undetected by forensic experts.
    Melanie McCracken, 25, was found dead in August 1995 in the back of the family car that had crashed off N.M. 47. Mark McCracken, who was not injured, has said he was rushing her to the hospital after finding her unconscious and not breathing at their Bosque Farms home.
    After two autopsies, the second performed in December, the Office of the Medical Investigator continues to rule the cause of death as "undetermined."
    No evidence of disease or suicide was discovered.
Case closed
    Martinez's predecessor, District Attorney Mike Runnels, closed the case in 1996 after a brief State Police inquiry.
    But Nancy Grice successfully urged Martinez to reopen the investigation after he took office in 2001. She contended State Police hadn't investigated the possibility of foul play and had covered up information because McCracken worked for the same agency.
    Without giving details, Martinez on Wednesday said the revived investigation by his office had shed some new light on what happened.
    "I wouldn't say a lot, but there is more," he said.
    He added that under new leadership appointed by Gov. Bill Richardson, State Police officials have been cooperative.
    "Since (Department of Public Safety secretary) John Denko came in ... we have had a positive response when trying to locate any evidence for the case."
'Independent view'
    Martinez said the inquiry "had come to a point where we're now ready to give the information and evidence to a special prosecutor."
    Citing the heavy criminal caseload in his office, Martinez said he wanted a "wholly independent view" from someone who could devote the time and resources to resolving the case.
    Harris will be assisted by a district attorney investigator on loan from the 9th Judicial District, which covers Curry and Roosevelt counties.
    Harris said the investigation appears to have been exhaustive. But he noted that "three or four" potential witnesses have died.
    Those include two emergency medical personnel. Both were found dead by hanging. A national forensic expert who concluded the woman had been murdered died last year.
    Melanie's maternal grandmother, who spoke with her granddaughter the day of Melanie's death, died of natural causes.
    Photos an OMI investigator took of the McCracken house the night of the death have been lost.
    Harris said it wouldn't be "insurmountable" to bring homicide charges in a case where the cause of death hadn't been medically determined by autopsy.
    "Circumstantial evidence is certainly valuable also," he added.
    Harris said there may still be people with information who haven't been interviewed. He asked that they contact him at his Clovis law office, at (505) 769-3000.
    Schoenburg said he has offered Harris any information he has.
    Mark McCracken wasn't interviewed by Martinez's investigators, Schoenburg said, but gave a taped statement during the original inquiry.
    Schoenburg wouldn't rule out the possibility of McCracken talking to Harris.
    "We'll have to see if this is a legitimate effort."
    Schoenburg said his client was concerned about his wife's health at the time she died.
    "She had told him and all their close friends that she was terminally ill and had only two months to live," Schoenburg said.
    Mark McCracken didn't question her claims that she had leukemia. He accompanied her to a doctor, Schoenburg said, but never went in with her.
    Schoenburg said Melanie would claim illness to get attention.
    He added that McCracken recalled his wife also "claimed that she could kill herself, and no one would know how she died."
    She could have taken "something to make herself ill and miscalculated," Schoenburg said.
    Two sets of toxicology tests have shown no evidence of any drugs in her system other than a small amount of ibuprofen.
    State Police said they assumed the young woman had succumbed to cancer when they found her dead in McCracken's car.
    Schoenburg said he believes Martinez's office has been pressured by Melanie McCracken's family and the news media into pursuing the case.
    "For whatever reason," he said, "prosecutors have been unwilling to admit the facts of the case."