New Mexico Supreme Court overturns domestic violence ruling
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — In the case of a man arrested numerous times on domestic violence charges, the New Mexico Supreme Court has determined that prosecutors should have been allowed to use previous statements made by the victim despite her later decision not to testify.
At issue was the constitutional right for a defendant to be able to confront an accuser. That right can be forfeited as a result of wrongdoing by the defendant to keep a victim or witness from testifying, but up for debate was whether that wrongdoing has to come in the form of a blatant threat.
The court in an opinion issued Monday clarified that coercion and intimidation can have the same result as making an overt threat to ensure a victim’s silence. The case was ordered back to the district court for further proceedings.
The ruling stems from domestic violence charges that were first leveled against Joshua Maestas in 2009. At the time, prosecutors sought to keep him in custody and cited a history of domestic violence that included being arrested seven times between 2003 and 2009.
The charges were eventually dropped as the victim declined to testify about the 2009 incident despite making earlier statements to police and testifying before a grand jury. Prosecutors sought to use her original statements, arguing that Maestas forfeited his right to cross-examine her at trial because he allegedly intimidated her in phone conversations they had while he was locked up.
The Supreme Court reviewed the recorded conversations, citing in the opinion some profanity-laced calls in which the defendant made threats and asked the victim to lie.
“In many cases, the basic question to be answered ... is simply whether the defendant has actively applied pressure by persuasion, coercion, intimidation, or otherwise, that may interfere with a witness’s availability or willingness to testify,” the opinion states.
The court said the exception of forfeiture-by-wrongdoing applies to “any conduct intended to interfere with or undermine the judicial process.”
Maestas’ attorney, Leon Felipe Encinias, was in court Tuesday and not immediately available for comment.
State prosecutors and victim advocates consider the opinion a positive step in the fight against domestic violence.
“Attorney General (Hector) Balderas commends the court for recognizing that the coercive and threatening power dynamic that we often see domestic violence and human trafficking cases cannot be further utilized as a tool by defendants to thwart the judicial process and re-victimize survivors of these horrific crimes,” said James Hallinan, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office.
Fear is often what keeps women from testifying in domestic violence cases, said Sheila Lewis, director of Santa Fe Safe. She said the case considered by the Supreme Court provides a good example of the kinds of intimidation women can face.
Lewis said New Mexico has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the U.S. and there’s no indication that things are improving.
“I think social problems add to the problem of domestic violence but unfortunately domestic violence is a universal problem,” she said. “People with money and without money, people with mental health issues and without perpetrate domestic violence on people they should be showing love to.”
The most recent data available from a survey of domestic violence service programs across the country shows that in New Mexico, there were more than 1,000 victims served in a single day in 2016 through emergency shelters, transitional housing, counseling and legal aid. In that same 24-hour period, local and state hotline staff answered 157 calls.
This version corrects the spelling of the first name of the Santa Fe Safe director, it is Sheila not Shelia.