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Attorney: Drug cases to blame for trial delays in New Mexico

December 30, 2018

When the murder charge against a man accused of killing longtime Santa Fe librarian Elvira Segura was dismissed in August over the defendant’s right to a speedy trial, it prompted an outcry from Segura’s friends and family members who said justice had not been served.

In dismissing the case against Robert Mondrian-Powell — who police say admitted to shooting Segura in 2016 — state District Judge T. Glenn Ellington said the case had languished for nearly two years. He placed the blame on state prosecutors, claiming they caused the majority of the delays in bringing Mondrian-Powell to trial.

Since then, motions to dismiss charges on speedy-trial grounds have been filed in at least two other high-profile cases in the state’s First Judicial District, including one involving the death of a 3-month-old infant in 2017 and another alleging a father and son had raped a 15-year-old girl at a party in 2015.

The mere passage of time isn’t enough to constitute a speedy-trial right violation in New Mexico. Instead, the state uses a system in which cases are classified based on their complexity and are reviewed at set times — 12, 15 and 18 months — to determine if a defendant’s rights are being compromised by a delayed process.

The Mondrian-Powell case, considered highly complex, had been pending for about 20 months when it was dismissed.

Public defender Jennifer Burrill, who represented Mondrian-Powell, said slow-moving cases are a structural, statewide problem caused by a combination of inadequate funding for judges, prosecutors and public defenders — and the trend toward incarcerating drug-use offenders rather than getting them treatment.

“It’s systemic because of this model that we are going to prosecute everybody for everything — tough on crime. Regardless of the crime, we are going to lock them up,” Burrill said. “But the state has not funded that model to make it flow adequately, so we are bottlenecked.

“It’s the bottleneck causing speedy trial dismissals,” Burrill added. “It’s taking a long time time for things to get processed, and that’s not any one judge’s fault or any one prosecutor’s fault. The reality is, we don’t have enough resources for what they want us to accomplish.”

Stephen Aarons, a defense lawyer who has practiced in the First Judicial District since 1985, said he’s seen ebb and flow in the amount of time it takes to move cases through the courts. But he noted “people [are] being charged with breaking the law more quickly than they can be processed.”

“We are coming out of a tough time where both sides [prosecution and defense], were understaffed, and we weren’t getting things resolved early,” Aarons said. “I will say, it’s been improving the last three or four months. But there was a good solid year or so where nothing was getting resolved.”

Aarons pointed to U.S. Department of Justice statistics that showed the vast majority of criminal cases — 91 percent in 2014, according to the department — are settled by plea bargain before trial. He said negotiating plea bargains sooner rather than later would make more sense.

“If you wait a until a year after the case [is filed] and then start negotiating, the system gets clogged and the courts just can’t handle the cases,” Aarons said. “If it’s going to resolve in a year, why not resolve it in a month and not have all those hearings?”

First Judicial District Attorney Marco Serna, who took office in January 2017, recently said he doesn’t agree cases have been moving slowly in the past several years, and he said he has taken steps to move cases along more quickly.

Serna said he has restructured his intake process in an effort to identify witnesses sooner, resolve discovery issues more quickly, offer plea agreements earlier and get more defendants into diversion programs where their underlying addiction issues can be addressed.

“Since Mondrian-Powell, we are making sure if something gets even remotely close to a speedy trial [challenge], we are making sure discovery is out, interviews are done and we are ready for trial,” he said.

But he added every case is unique and delays can be caused by a variety of factors beyond his control — including long waits for laboratory results, difficulty finding expert witnesses or defendants failing to appear for court.

Serna, who has long advocated for treatment over incarceration, said one of the focuses of his office has been diversion for nonviolent defendants accused of drug crimes. But he said he agrees there is a dearth of substance-abuse treatment programs in New Mexico.

The bottom line, Aarons said, is a need for cases to be “triaged.”

“Some cases are going to go to trial no matter what,” he said, “but the ones clogging the system up are the ones that because of overwork and backlog, nobody can really look at and say, ‘How can we make this go away in a way that’s in the interest of both the defendant and society?’ ”

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