Thursday, October 02, 2008
District Attorney's Race Heats Up
By T.J. Wilham
Journal Staff Writer
Republican challenger Lisa Torraco says District Attorney Kari Brandenburg's conviction rate is a "travesty" brought about by poor organization and bad decision-making.
Brandenburg, a Democrat seeking a third four-year term as Bernalillo County's top prosecutor, defends her performance and says the number of convictions isn't the appropriate way to measure her office.
"Our goal is to do justice, not just to win cases," Brandenburg said. "We cannot and it would be highly unethical to measure ourselves by the number of convictions."
Torraco, a former prosecutor who now does criminal defense work, paid for a District Court analysis of 43 cases the DA's office took to trial during the first six months of this year.
Juries acquitted the defendant 19 times and convicted the defendant on at least one charge 16 times. There were eight mistrials.
That translates into a conviction rate of 37 percent.
Brandenburg says the DA's Office got convictions in 57 percent of the cases it took to trial in 2007 and says the overall conviction rate since she took office is more than 95 percent, taking into account guilty pleas.
Brandenburg concedes the data raise some questions and said she will thoroughly look into all of the cases on the list.
She pointed out that some of the cases were gang-related and witnesses backed out of testifying at the last minute. Four of the acquittals and three of the mistrials involved sex crimes, which she said are hard to get convictions on.
Of the four murder cases on this year's list, there were three convictions and one acquittal.
Torraco had a different view of the 2008 statistics.
"It's a disgrace. It's a travesty. There are a million words to describe this," said Torraco, who believes the DA's Office should win 80 percent of its cases. "I am seriously questioning their ability to analyze cases.
"When we have a DA whose loss record is greater than 50 percent, we know she is clogging the system with cases that should not have even been brought."
Torraco says she believes that Brandenburg's office is not correctly evaluating cases and is taking the wrong ones to trial. She said it's contributing to a backlog in the court system that leaves some cases tied up for months or years.
If elected, Torraco said, she would reorganize the DA's Office so the prosecutor trying the case is the same one who presented it to a grand jury.
The office now has a separate division of prosecutors who exclusively present cases to grand juries. If there is an indictment, the case is passed to another prosecutor who specializes in whatever crime was indicted.
Torraco also said she also plans to send more cases to a preliminary hearing instead of grand jury.
Unlike grand juries, preliminary hearings are open to the public and witnesses are subject to cross examination by defense lawyers. That means there is more serious scrutiny of the evidence.
Instead of a grand jury deciding whether to indict, a judge decides whether there is sufficient evidence to warrant a trial.
Torraco said she would take only certain cases to preliminary hearing and contends the change wouldn't further clog the system because there is plenty of room on judges' calendars.
Brandenburg said her office has been looking at using preliminary hearings more often but that there is not enough room on judges' calendars to hear that many preliminary hearings.
She said those hearings could take much longer to get charges pursued than grand juries.