The contest for the Democratic nomination for New Mexico State Attorney is between first term New Mexico State Auditor Brian Colón and two-term Bernalillo County District Attorney Raúl Torrez. Colón has served as state auditor since winning a four-year-term in 2018 and is the former head of the state Democratic Party. Torrez is a former federal prosecutor who was elected to a second 4-year term as District Attorney in 2020. Republican lawyer Jeremy Gay will face the winner of the June 7 primary election.
On May 9, a one-hour debate occurred on KRQE-TV. The debate was spirited. Both candidates engaged in highly personal attacks.
Torrez faulted Colón as a “career politician” who lacks “experience in public safety.” Torrez said of Colon:
“One of the things that defines this race is whether you want a career prosecutor or a career politician. … He has not prosecuted a single case, not even a parking ticket. … You know I saw Mr. Colon at the round house taking selfies with his friends, taking selfies with the Speaker [of the House]. I never heard him speak up, I never heard him step out and support publicly our fight and the governor’s fight for “rebuttable presumption”. That’s the difference between a career prosecutor and somebody who lives and dies with politics.”
The “Reputable presumption” legislation was where a defendant who is charged with a violent crime is presumed to be a threat to the public and should be jailed until pending trial without bond or any conditions of release.
Colón for his part call out Torrez for his “failed prosecution rates” and said this about Torrez:
“What my opponent has is a failed track record of prosecution. A lifelong career as a prosecutor, yet at the end of the day, the numbers are abysmal. Our community is less safe than it has ever been before. … The best way to get Torrez to the office is to have a T.V. camera present. … At some point you gotta quite pointing fingers, ya gotta take responsibility. … I’ve got a failed prosecutor standing beside me. … At the end of the day, we’re not safe.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: In 2017, District Attorney Raul Torrez and Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller wrote a joint letter to the New Mexico Supreme Court requesting it to intervene and stop the plans of 2nd Judicial District Court to shift away from the use of grand jury system to a preliminary hearing system. Torrez accused the District Court of being the cause of the city’s high crime rates by dismissing cases. The District Court responded by providing an extensive amount of statistics, bar graphs and pie charts to the New Mexico Supreme Court. The statistics prepared by the District Court revealed the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office under Raul Torrez has a 65% combined dismissal, acquittal and mistrial rate with cases charge by grand juries.
HIGHLIGHTS OF DEBATE
Major topics of the debate included the following subjects and the candidate responses:
Raul Torrez said to bring down violent crime we need to gather stakeholders inside the criminal justice system and breakdown the barriers to communication that exists. He proclaimed that his office had partnered with a local firm to implement advanced data analytics to deal with crime in real time and to exchange the data between law enforcement as crime is unfolding. He advocated for more diversion programs, drug addiction treatment and more mental health programs targeting low level offenders to allow concentration on violent criminals.
Brian Colón said we need to bring people together and said we have District Attorneys all over the state who are not communicating with each other. Colón said there is a need for a “multidisciplinary approach” to violent crime with cooperation amongst stakeholders noting that data collection is not enough. Colón said he believes in a multi-pronged effort to fighting crime. He said his leadership will provide a way to bringing key stakeholders together to consider solutions and he said he has a long track record and a reputation of doing just that. He also noted he has been working to rebuild the behavioral health system decimated by former Governor Susana Martinez.
During the 2022 New Mexico legislative session, Torrez, along with Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham and Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller, unsuccessfully pushed legislation that would change pretrial detention release of alleged violent offenders with a “rebuttable presumption” of being violent to hold those charged with a violent crime until trial. It would have shifted the burden of proof to the defendant to show they are not violent.
Raul Torres charged that the pretrial detention system of release is not working and it needs to be fixed. He said “rebuttable presumption” is the way to fix the pretrial detention and prevent the release of the most violent criminals. He has also said the criminal justice system is a “revolving door”. Torrez chided the legislature for coming up with data that justified a broken pretrial detention release system. Torrez vowed to try again during next year’s 60-day session for changes to pretrial detention and allowing for “rebuttable presumption.”
Brian Colón said “absolutely” he is in favor of some sort of pretrial detention reform. He said he believes in a multi-pronged effort to fighting crime, including pretrial detention reform, but said leadership is important to bringing key stakeholders together to consider solutions, adding, “you can’t hang your hat on one piece [of legislation such as rebuttable presumption].” Colon said Torrez talked about big-name political support during the failed legislative fight for rebuttable presumption, but “if he had that support he should have been very embarrassed when he walked out of the Roundhouse [after the legislative session]”.
THE JACKSON WELLER MUDER BY DARIAN BASHIR
During the KRQE debate, the candidates were asked if the Attorney General’s office should prosecute more cases as a means of reducing crime. The question led to the most heated exchange between the candidates.
Brian Colón said that the Attorney General’s office should prosecute more cases where District Attorney’s “take a walk” and fail to prosecute. Colón took the opportunity to chide Torrez for refusing to meet with the family of violent crime victims which resulted in protests outside the DA’s Office. Colón said prosecutors have an obligation to met with the families of crime victims and explain why a case is not prosecuted. Colón made the commitment he would seek more resources for prosecutors throughout the state. He also said he would never refuse to meet with the family of victims of crime and he has never had anyone protest outside of his office for failure to meet with them and do his job.
Raul Torrez did not answer the question if the Attorney General should prosecute more cases. Instead, Torrez showed outrage and took Colón to task for airing an attack ad that included the murder of University of New Mexico baseball player Jackson Weller. Darian Bashir killed Jackson Weller outside a Nob Hill bar in 2019. Two years before the murder, Bashir was arrested for shooting a man outside a downtown bar. But Bashir never went to trial in that case. A District Court Judge found that Bashir never went to trial in the case due to the District Attorney failing to comply with deadlines, not interviewing witnesses on time, and not responding to motions.
Instead of taking any responsibility for his office’s mishandling of the Bashir case and expressing no regret, Torrez tried to turn the table on Colón and proclaimed that Colón had disqualified himself from holding office for airing the ad and using the image of a murder victim to campaign and raise money even after the victim’s father asked Colón to take the ad down. Colón responded with the fact that it was Torrez’s DA’s office that botched the prosecution of the Darian Bashir case and that the Torrez allowed an unlicensed attorney prosecute cases.
Since 2008, New Mexico has had some of the highest drug overdose rates in the United State. From 2008 to 2012, almost every county in New Mexico had a higher drug overdose rate than the entire country. Attorney General Hector Balderas sued pharmaceutical companies to combat the problem.
New Mexico now faces a new drug crisis with the synthetic drug fentynle. In 2020, the New Mexico Department of Public Health recorded 304 fentyle overdose deaths from January to November, a 135% increase over 2019. The candidates were asked who they would go after to stop fentynle distribution.
Saying that it’s a complex problem, Raul Torrez noted that his office takes many such drug cases through the federal law enforcement system because they are able to get better results and longer sentencings. Torrez said there is a need to tackle the problem from both the enforcement side and the consumption side. According to Torrez, more treatment resources are needed, especially for younger offenders.
Brian Colón said the fentynle crisis has been created by the pharmaceutical companies and the black market. Colón wants to continue to hold pharmaceutical companies accountable civilly as what has been done in the past few years by Attorney General Balderas, but Colón said he wants to take it a step further. He said there is a need to hold pharmaceutical companies liable criminally, which would include criminally charging corporate CAO’s with crimes. He said to do so, there must be a corroborative effort with federal and state authorities.
Both candidates were asked what is the most important and specific crime law that the legislature needs to enact.
Brian Colón said it must be a collective approach when it comes to individual crime laws. Colon wants to increase penalties for violent offenders. Colón said he especially wants to increase work, resources and focus on crimes against children. This would include requiring those who are convicted of sex offenses in other states and who move to New Mexico to also register here as well as sex offenders claiming that the registration is an “easy fix”. Colón also wants to make prosecution of internet crimes against children a major priority.
Torrez once again advocated and said the most important and specific crime law that needs to be enacted is “rebuttable presumption” and laws to fix the broken pretrial release system involving violent crime offenders. Torrez noted that there have been 7 families who had relatives killed by violent offenders who his office sought to detain but who were let out and not held pending trial allowing them to commit another violent crime. Torrez said the pretrial reform enacted by voters was never meant to be a get out of jail free card for violent offenders but was intended for low level non violent offenders.
ENFORCEMENT OF LAWS NOW THAT CANNABIS LEGAL
The candidates were asked with the recent legalization of cannabis in New Mexico, how they would help enforce laws, specifically “drugged driving”.
Torrez said there is a need to expand the number of “drug recognition experts” inside law enforcement agencies throughout the state. The challenge is that there does not exist the same testing technology for cannabis as with alcohol.
Colón acknowledged that he supported the legalization cannabis. He agreed with Torrez that the state must expand the number of drug recognition experts for law enforcement. He also said there is a big need to stop vending cannabis without a license.
The links to quoted news source material are here:
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
The Colón-Torrez debate was a remarkable and substantive contrast of the candidates and styles. Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torrez came across as an angry and self-righteous politician with a sense of entitlement while New Mexico State Auditor Brian Colon came across as a dedicated public servant.
Raul Torrez’s performance was cringe worthy and condescending when he accused Brian Colón of using the killing of Jackson Weller, calling Weller a “boy” when he was a grown man, and accusing Colón of using the killing to score political points and for campaign fund raising. This coming from the DA who botched the prosecution of the case of Darian Bashir who killed Jackson Weller and who has allowed an unlicensed attorney prosecute cases.
The Torrez attack on Colón that he is a “career politician” rings very hallow in that Raul Torrez himself is a career politician seeing as all the jobs Raul Torrez has ever held in his career have been political appointments and running for office. Torrez has made it a big deal that Colón has “never tried a case” while during his years running for DA and the last 5 years as District Attorney, Torrez himself has not tried a case. What Torrez has done with high profile pending cases in his office is to do press conferences instead of going to court himself.
Brian Colón came across as polished and informed showing he was well prepared. Colón’s attacks on Torrez where likely considered by many a little out of character given his positive, easy going, public relations persona. However, the attacks on Torrez were substantive, accurate and effective. “At the end of the day”, which Colón kept saying, Colón was viewed by observers as the winner of the debate.
Brian Colón has more at stake given that his term is ending at State Auditor while Raul Torrez will have two years left of his term as District Attorney should he lose the Attorney General’s race. Elected Attorney Generals have gone onto higher office including Toney Anaya who was later elected Governor, Jeff Bingaman who was later elected United States Senator and Tom Udall who was later elected United States Senator.
The race between both Colón and Torrez was bound to be hard fought in that both have expressed they are interested in eventually becoming Governor or going on to serve in congress. Both State Auditor Brian Colón and District Attorney Raul Torrez are well-funded and their personal attacks on each other will likely continue until election day.
Whoever wins the Democratic Primary on June 7, 2022 will likely become the next Attorney General.