You always know when an elected official has taken a very serious public relations hit whenever they make a special trip to the Albuquerque Journal Center and subject themselves to a wide-ranging interview with the Journal Editors and its reporters on a single topic.
It is called “political damage control” usually taken in the wake of a public controversy to make things right with the public and public perception and to salvage and repair a reputation.
A mere six days from the day in which District Attorney Raul Torrez did his late afternoon Friday press conference announcing that his office had negotiated a plea agreement with defendant Michelle Martens, Torrez made a trip to the Albuquerque Journal Center to have a conversation with the Albuquerque Journal Editors and its reporters about the pending criminal case and where the investigation is going.
You can read the full, front page Journal article here:
Originally, Michelle Martens was charged along with her boyfriend Fabian Gonzales and her friend Jessica Kelly for the rape, murder and dismemberment of 10-year-old child Victoria Martens.
According to Torrez, his office’s investigation found Michelle Martens falsely admitted to committing the crimes when forensic evidence revealed she and her boyfriend were not even present and did not participate in the murder.
The plea agreement Torrez negotiated was to one count of child abuse, recklessly caused, resulting in the death of a child under 12 and guarantees a 12 to 15-year sentence and dropping the most egregious charges.
The original charges of rape, murder and body dismemberment are still pending against Jessica Kelly and a fourth yet to be identified individual, and that is what is problematic.
There has been tremendous public outcry over the leniency shown a mother who many feel contributed to the most heinous crimes committed against her own child.
DISCLOSURES MADE TO THE JOURNAL EDITORS AND REPORTERS
According to the Journal report, Torrez says they have obtained DNA samples from 16 men as they seek to identify a fourth suspect in the Victoria Martens murder case with five of those persons of interest having been eliminated, with forensic test results for 11 still outstanding.
District Attorney Raúl Torrez reiterated what he said at his news conference that there is no evidence that the girl’s mother, Michelle Martens, was involved in Victoria’s death or dismemberment, or knew the identity of the fourth suspect police are now seeking.
Torrez told the Journal Editors that he hopes Michelle Martens will offer useful information now that she has accepted a plea deal that requires her to provide statements to authorities.
According to Torres: “She [Michelle Martens] may know who this individual is and not know that this individual [was involved in the crime]. … She may know who this individual is because he was there previously.”
What is very troubling is that Torrez said he hoped they will not have to make a deal with Jessica Kelley, the last of the original trio still facing rape and murder charges, in order to track down that unidentified man when he said:
“We are not prepared to do that yet. … And my hope is that we are not ever presented with that choice.”
According to an amendment to the Fabian Gonzales’ indictment, Gonzales tampered with evidence when he allegedly “removed V.M.’s arms from her body,” and “hid and/or placed and/or wrapped organs,” among other things.”
Torrez told the Journal editors he could not comment on the evidence that supports the charges set forth in the indictment of dismemberment, but he did say there is no evidence that Martens was involved in the process of dismembering her own child.
Forensic evidence such as DNA evidence test results must be turned over to defense attorneys once received by the prosecution, and Torres acknowledged more DNA testing is being done, so it is difficult to understand how Torrez can make the definitive claims.
Further, Torrez’s disclaimer is difficult to accept seeing that no one knows what he actually told the reporters and the Journal editors.
NEW MEXICO CODE OF PROFESSIONAL RESPONSIBITY
Torrez is not just another elected official, but is a licensed New Mexico Attorney and the Chief Law Enforcement official for the County.
As a licensed attorney and prosecutor, Torrez is held to strict standards of professional conduct, including being required to swear to and adhere to the Code of Professional Conduct.
The New Mexico Code of Professional Responsibility has a very specific rule that governs attorneys conduct and trial publicity:
“Rule 16-306 Trial Publicity
A. Extrajudicial Statements. A lawyer shall not make any extrajudicial or out-of-forum [or out of court] statement in a criminal proceeding that may be tried to a jury that the lawyer know or reasonably should know:
(1) is false; or
(2) creates a clear and present danger of prejudicing the proceeding.
B. Attorney’s Obligations With Respect to Other Persons. A lawyer shall make reasonable efforts to insure compliance with this rule by associated attorneys, employees and members of law enforcement and investigative agencies.”
The New Mexico Rules of Criminal Procedure are also very clear that prosecutors have a very clear ongoing duty to disclose to accused defendants any exculpatory evidence in a case as well as scientific test results in a case before a trial proceeds.
The extended interview that Torrez and his lead prosecutor did with the Albuquerque Journal Editors as well as the reporters was no doubt recorded.
Whatever was said in that meeting by District Attorney Torrez discussing the case is problematic not withstanding Torrez’ disclaimer that he could not talk about the evidence.
What is extremely problematic is that District Attorney Raul Torrez in an interview with Journal editors and reporters, along with lead prosecutor Greer Rose, shared additional details as well as prosecution strategy on a pending criminal prosecution against two other defendants, one identified and one yet to be found, that where then splashed on the front page of the Albuquerque Journal.
Another problem posed is that Torrez did discuss conclusions based on the evidence that should be decided by a jury, not the prosecutor in the case.
You can bet the pretrial publicity in this case generated by Torrez himself with his press conference and briefing of the Journal editors will have an impact on the case and at a minimum will lead to suppression of evidence in the case or worse down right dismissal of the charges pending against the others.
No doubt Torrez ingratiated himself with the Albuquerque Journal and the media with his press conference and Journal meeting, but he sure did not help his cause in seeking justice for 10-year-old Victoria Martens.