On September 14, 2018, State District Court Judge Charles Brown rejected a plea deal negotiated by District Attorney Raúl Torrez with Defendant Jessica Kelley in the brutal murder of 9-year-old Victoria Martens who was stabbed, murdered, dismember and her body burned in the bath tub of her home.
The rejected plea agreement would have required Jessica Kelley to testify at related trials of Michelle Martens, Victoria’s mother, and Fabian Gonzales, and to provide statements to authorities.
Defendant Jessica Kelley could have faced 49½ years in prison, but with good time she would likely serve 25 years.
On June 29, 2018, Michelle Martens, the mother of the murdered child, plead guilty to one count of reckless child abuse resulting in the child’s death.
With the plea deal, Michelle Martens faces a possible sentence of 12-15 years, and with good time she could be out of jail within 6 to 7 and a half years a very sharp contrast to the 49 + years exposure of Jessica Kelly.
The rejection of the Kelley plea agreement comes months after District Attorney Raul Torrez announced in June during a press conference that much of the initial facts of the case were “simply not true” to quote Torrez.
According to Torrez, the initial understanding of the case had been derived from false statements Michelle Martens provided to police.
The initial police investigation and reports alleged that it was Jessica Kelley that stabbed 9-year-old Victoria Martens, Fabian Gonzales strangled her while Michelle Martens watched the murder.
During a June 29, 2018 press conference announcing dismissal of many of the original charges against Michelle Martens and Fabian Gonzales, Torrez stated that the evidence revealed that Martens nor Gonzales were not even home at the time Victoria was murdered.
According to Torrez, cell phone data proved that Michelle Martens and Fabian Gonzales were not home at the time of Victoria’s death.
During the June 29, 2018 press conference, Torrez made the stunning announcement that DNA and forensic evidence test results revealed a fourth and unidentified individual.
Michelle Martens was given a plea deal and several charges against Fabian Gonzales’ were dismissed.
RATIONAL FOR REJECTION OF JESSICA KELLEY PLEA DEAL
A “plea bargain” or a “negotiated plea agreement” between a defendant and a prosecutor is where a defendant agrees to plead guilty or “no contest” in exchange for an agreement by the prosecutor to drop one or more charges, reduce a charge to a less serious offense, or recommend to the judge a specific sentence acceptable to the defense.
The New Mexico Rules of Criminal procedure are very clear that any District Judge taking a plea must determine the accuracy of the plea and make sure a defendant is admitting to enough essential facts to prove that the defendant actually committed the crime being admitted to by the defendant.
A Judge cannot accept a plea or enter a judgment or sentence on plea agreement without making such inquiry that will satisfy the court that there is a factual basis for the plea.
It is the responsibility of the Judge to determine if the defendant fully understands the plea agreement, and the guilty plea is made freely and voluntarily without any duress.
During the course of the plea proceedings, the prosecution usually is given an opportunity to first outline the plea agreement an give a summary of the facts and details of the case and summarize the plea agreement terms and conditions.
After the initial presentation by the prosecution, the defendant is sworn in and required to testify under oath in great detail what they did and acknowledge that the facts outlined in the plea agreement are accurate.
The facts admitted to by the defendant must satisfy the elements of the crime the defendant has been charged with and is admitting to in the plea agreement.
The plea agreement negotiated with Defendant Jessica Kelley was reported to being 18 pages long providing a factual statement of the murder.
Rather than allowing prosecutors to merely read a statement outlining their allegations against Kelley, Judge Brown questioned Defendant Kelley on the facts which is totally appropriate and allowed and should have been expected given the high profile nature of the case.
District Judge Brown asked one very simple question of defendant Jessica Kelley:
“What happened that makes you guilty of recklessly causing or permitting something that resulted in the death of a child?”
In response to the Judges question, Defendant Jessica Kelley testified she “let an unknown male come in, not knowing he was going to kill Victoria Martens”.
Kelley testified she had no indication the man intended to hurt anyone and thought the man might have been Victoria’s father or a “friend of the family … He did not look like a bad person, he was dressed well and he walked in like he knew the home.”
Jessica Kelley testified she directed the man to the room where the child was sleeping.
Deputy District Attorney James Grayson who presented the plea agreement argued that Kelley was aware that she was too intoxicated to care for the child and that Kelley had been hallucinating and experiencing paranoid delusions all day and because of her intoxication was not able to assess the risk the unidentified man posed.
Grayson argued that Kelley “engaged in conduct that showed reckless disregard for the safety or health of the child.”
After the prosecutor’s argument, Judge Brown said the drug use was not the relevant issue and went on to say:
“There is no indication [evidence] she knew or should have known that the person intended to commit intentional murder. … You’re asking [or suggesting] … Ms. Kelley is somehow a mind reader …”
During a press conference after the rejection of the plea agreement by Judge Brown, Torrez had this to say:
“I think from my perspective, the thing I’m most focused on and interested in, is trying to identify and eventually prosecute the other individual that we have yet to identify … Securing this plea agreement was a critical first step in that.”
A spokesman for the District Attorney Raul Torrez said that prosecutors had joined with Kelley’s defense team to draft a joint motion asking Brown to reconsider his decision.
ANALYSIS AND COMMENTARY
A glaring mistake that appears to have been made by Raul Torrez and his assistants is the failure to confirm in detail with defense counsel exactly what Defendant Jessica Kelly was going to testify to under oath and the facts she would be admitting to before the judge once she was sworn in.
Instead of Defendant Kelley making admissions of guilt and reciting facts, it was the Deputy District Attorney making argument that Kelley was too intoxicated to care for the child and that Kelley had been hallucinating and experiencing paranoid delusions all day and because of her intoxication was not able to assess the risk the unidentified man posed.
The prosecution making a legal argument that Kelley “engaged in conduct that showed reckless disregard for the safety or health of the child” does not cut it as an admission of conduct that violated the law and guilt which any experienced prosecutor should know.
District Judge Charles Brown is one of the most respected and above all most competent trial judges on the bench and is also a former prosecutor.
The risk of Judge Brown approving a plea agreement where a defendant does not make specific admissions of fact leaving guilt to the charge being plead to as a matter of speculation results in the very substantial risk and the likelihood of the plea being set aside on appeal at some later date.
With the dismissal of criminal charges against Mitchell Martens and giving her a plea agreement with a maximum sentence of 15 years or less, and now with the denial of a plea deal negotiated with the prime suspect who may have murdered a 9-year-old child, it is becoming painfully obvious that District Attorney Raul Torrez is dealing with a case that can end his political career.
The murder of 9-year-old Victoria Martens occurred a mere 5 months before Raul Torrez took office.
Torrez was briefed extensively on the case during the transition and he has had control of the case now for almost 2 years.
Torrez proclaimed after Judge Brown rejected the plea the “thing I’m most focused on and interested in, is trying to identify and eventually prosecute the other individual that we have yet to identify …”
Torrez has misplaced optimism and hopes given the amount of time since the murder and the likelihood of finding and arresting the person and then getting a conviction is probably remote at best.
What Torrez should be focused on and more interested in is prosecuting and convicting any one of the 3 defendants in custody for the murder of a child and not the lesser offense of “recklessly causing or permitting something that resulted in the death of a child.”
A first-degree murder charge and conviction carries a sentence of life imprisonment with no chance of parole and with no good time allowed.
Sources within the DA’s office have said Torrez paid considerable attention to the Martens case during the transition before being sworn in as District Attorney.
Torrez was briefed on and knew what was happening and wanted to prosecute the case personally because he knew it was going to be high profile.
Now that the case appears to be falling apart, Torrez is seeking to avoid a trial that will essentially place his office and the Albuquerque Police Department investigation on trial to create reasonable doubt in the minds of a jury.
With that said, APD has botched this case like so many other homicide cases it has in the past.
The blog article below discusses APD’s dismal record in homicide cases.
Raul Torrez is an experienced former United States federal prosecutor, he knew what he was getting into with the Martens case, yet the mistakes he and his office have made in the investigation and prosecution of the case is that of a first-year prosecutor right out law school.
Torrez is attracted to the media cameras like a moth is to the light and he has made many statements that will be problematic for his office to overcome if the case ever goes to trial.
Torrez is going to have to run on his record and not on his favorable media coverage which no doubt will soon turn negative if the case is mishandled and continues to go south on him.
Voters tend to forget high profile murders after defendants are convicted, but outright dismissal of cases involving the murder of children are not forgotten easily and such dismissals difficult to defend before voters.
The leniency of a 12 to 15 year plea agreement Torrez showed towards a mother who placed her 10-year-old child in harm’s way and made the child a victim of one of the most horrendous murders in Albuquerque history will be remembered given his own past statements on our criminal justice system and conduct towards Judges.
Blaming the cops and the Judges is not going to cut it if Raul Torrez can’t get a conviction on the most heinous crime against a child.
Raul Torrez will be ultimately be rewarded by voters if he gets a conviction or ultimately held responsible and be voted out of office by voters if he negotiates lenient plea deals or no convictions in the murder of a 9-year-old child.
For other blog articles on Torrez job performance see: