In a late Friday afternoon press conference, District Attorney Raul Torrez standing alone in the DA’s conference room announced that his office had negotiated a plea agreement with defendant Michelle Martens, the mother of 10-year-old Victoria Martens who was raped, strangled, murdered, dismembered and then burned in the bath tub of her home.
Elected officials often do late Friday afternoon press conferences to announce controversial decisions in an effort to deflect some negative press coverage, but it usually does not work very well with highly controversial decisions such as the one announced by District Attorney Raul Torrez.
The defendant Michelle Martens and two others have been behind bars now for two years awaiting trial.
THE PLEA AGREEMENT
Torrez announced that the most egregious charges against the defendant Michelle Martens including murder and rape were dismissed.
The plea agreement Torrez negotiated was to one count of child abuse, recklessly caused, resulting in the death of a child under 12.
The plea agreement guarantees a 12 to 15-year sentence.
Because Martens has cooperated and turned state’s evidence and given her significantly reduced mental capacity, there is a real chance the court will sentence her to 12 years and not the full 15.
Raul Torrez and his prosecutors agreed that Martens’ crime will not be classified as a serious violent offense, meaning she could see her sentence cut in half for good behavior and serve as little as 6 years if she is sentenced to 12 years.
The defendant will get credit for the two years of time already served because she has been in jail for two years pending trial, so it is possible that Martens could be out of prison in 4 years.
AN OVERINDICTED UNRAVELING CASE
District Attorney Raul Torrez is now taking considerable heat and experiencing tremendous public outcry regarding the plea agreement he and his office negotiated with the defendant Michelle Martens.
According to Torrez, the physical evidence and forensic evidence established the Defendant Martens and her boyfriend Fabian Gonzales, who was also charged with the murder, were not even present at the time of the child’s murder.
DA Torrez said APD officers did not have the psychological profile at the time of the initial investigation was completed and APD detectives thought they could “trust what Martens was telling them” when she admitted to the crime of killing her own child.
The state’s own forensic psychiatrist said Michelle Martins did not realize she was also incriminating herself when she talked to police.
The forensic psychiatrist Michael Welner, who worked with the District Attorney’s Office, said a combination of Martens’ passive and naive personality, the way officers presented themselves as on her side and the context of her daughter’s recent death, led Michelle Martins to admit to a crime she did not commit and admitting to having witnessed the crime she never saw.
Dr. Welner was quoted as saying:
“In the course of questioning her about specifics and going over details, the officers in the questioning revealed certain details within the case that Michelle later incorporated into her story. … Incorporating them into her story gave the impression of some legitimacy of what she was saying.”
To complicate matters, Torrez announced in his press conference that a fourth yet unidentified defendant had been indicted as a “John Doe” for the child’s murder.
DA Raul Torres is quoted as saying during his press conference:
“With each new round of testing and each new piece of information, more and more doubt was cast on Michelle Martens’ direct involvement in the murder of her daughter Victoria … And we were forced to consider the possibility that Michelle Martens had falsely incriminated herself and [her boyfriend] Fabian Gonzales in this heinous act.”
Torrez announced that he removed the two original prosecutors from the case and assigned more experienced trial attorneys by saying:
“It was my sense that we needed to have a more experienced team involved and we need to have dedicated resources. … I’m not going to second guess at this point what information they had access to.”
With his words and actions, District Attorney Raul Torrez admitted he and his office at the very least made the classic mistake and engaged in a level of prosecutorial overzealousness by “over indicting” a case based on witness statements and confessions before all the physical and forensic evidence had been processed and reviewed by his office.
All to often, especially when DNA evidence is involved, witness’s statements are found to be false and contradicted by DNA evidence.
Many defendants have sat on death row based on false eyewitness testimony and even confessions only to be released years later because DNA proves they did not commit the crime.”
Just two years ago on June, 2, 2016, the murder charges against Donovan Maez, 22 and Christopher Cruz were dismissed when eye witness testimony was proven to be false.
The decision to assign more experienced trial attorneys to the case and dedicate more resources is indeed very noble and absolutely necessary, but it took Torrez a full 18 months to come to that conclusion.
Torrez does not have to “second guess … what information they had access to” seeing as he admitted he knew within a few months after taking office there were real problems with the case.
A MAYOR HAS NO ROLE IN A CRIMINAL PLEA AGREEMENT
Briefing a Mayor in civil case settlements where the city or its employees are named party defendants and involving settlements in the millions of dollars, such as deadly use of force and deadly force cases involving APD, is necessary because it is the Mayor who is held ultimately responsible for preparing the city’s budget.
However, when it comes to prosecuting criminal cases, it is the District Attorney that has the exclusive authority to determine whether a case is to be charged.
It is the District Attorney who has the authority to negotiate and agree to plea and disposition agreements.
Torrez said he talked with Mayor Tim Keller, Police Chief Michael Geier, the deputy chiefs and officers about what the evidence revealed and issues he found with the Marten’s criminal case.
Torrez is quoted as saying:
“I’ve had extended conversations with APD and the mayor’s office about some of the issues that came to light in this case. … It’s my hope that we can all improve in the criminal justice system based on some hard lessons that need to be learned about these cases.”
What is glaring is that Torrez has had the case for 18 months.
Mayor Keller and Chief Geier have been in office for only 7 months.
Torrez did not disclose if he ever discussed with former Mayor Berry or former Chief Gordon Eden during their last full year in office the problems with the case nor APD’s failures in investigating the case.
Former Chief Eden for his part refused to comment to the media saying he was retired.
It is totally appropriate for a District Attorney’s Office to discuss a pending criminal case and the evidence with the APD command staff and its personnel and the victims and witnesses in a case, but not civilians such as the Mayor.
The appropriate protocol would have been for the APD command staff or chief to brief Mayor Keller on the Marten’s case and not District Attorney Raul Torrez.
District Attorney Torrez is seriously mistaken when he says he needed to talk with the Mayor and discuss with him in private evidence in a pending criminal case and what that evidence revealed in order to improve the criminal justice system.
Torrez did not disclose if he sought Mayor Keller’s approval of the Marten’s plea and disposition agreement, nor if the Mayor gave his approval of the plea, which would have been the ultimate reason for Torrez really wanting to talk with Keller.
TORREZ COMMENTS OF EHTICAL RESPONSIBILITY RINGS HOLLOW
Torrez said he feels that his office did the right thing in negotiating the plea agreement and dropping the most serious charge of murder.
Torrez said that while Martens is not innocent, she is not a murderer and said:
“She did contribute to a situation that allowed her daughter to be killed, and she needs to be held accountable for that. … This gets into fundamentally the role of the prosecutor in the community. … It touches directly on our ethical obligation to hold everyone accountable for what they did, but to make sure we’re only pursuing cases and charging people for what they’ve committed.”
Torrez defense of the plea agreement based upon ethical consideration and the fundamental role of a prosecutor rings very hollow seeing as just one year ago Torrez was blaming the Judiciary for Albuquerque’s rising crime rates and questioning the sentencing and leniency of the courts in criminal cases.
A year ago, Torrez claimed that our judicial system was broken stating the decisions by the judges to dismiss cases were “absurd”.
Torrez had his District Attorney Office issue a report that outlined the so-called problems he perceived since the issuance of the Case Management Order in February 2015.
Main points in the DA’s report were that defense attorneys were “gaming” the court mandated discovery deadlines to get cases dismissed by demanding evidence they were entitled to under the law and the Rules of Criminal Procedure and asking for trials instead of entering into plea agreements.
Torrez went so far as to say that defense attorneys were getting their clients off and getting cases dismissed on technicalities.
Torres proclaimed defense attorneys were “gaming the system” to get their clients off.
Torrez claimed he was frustrated with elected District Court Judges blocking his efforts to keep dangerous criminals in jail.
A District Court analysis found that it was the District Attorney’s office that was voluntarily dismissing more than twice as many cases as the judges were dismissing.
Perhaps District Attorney Raul Torrez has learned in a year that the courts have as much of an ethical responsibility as he does to see that justice is served when he asks the courts to approve plea and disposition agreements his office negotiates in cases like the Martens case.
What is extremely problematic is that it appears DA Torrez attempted to bring Mayor Tim Keller into the process for reviewing and approving plea agreements.
Any criminal defense attorney worth their salt and with a client facing an upcoming trial for murder will want to know what was said to and what role the Mayor’s office had in a plea and disposition agreement made in a case involving defendants where charges were dismissed such as the Martens case.
Briefing Mayor Tim Keller, Chief Geier and the Deputy Chief’s on the evidence in a pending case that did not occur on their watch amounts to nothing more than DA Torrez trying to spread the blame around to as many people as possible to avoid being held responsible for a botched prosecution and to be able to say he was given approval and consent from others for a plea agreement he negotiated.