Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Pay attention to the attorney general’s race

Election 2022 is winding down and the news is mostly full of the gubernatorial race between Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham and challenger Mark Ronchetti and the freshly gerrymandered 2nd Congressional District matchup between Congresswoman Yvette Herrell and Las Cruces City Councilman Gabe Vasquez.

These two races are where the money and the advertising are going and it’s hard to avoid them on television or online. I want to call your attention to another race that will have a major impact on our state: Attorney General.

After a Democratic primary that looked like two Republicans duking it out for their “tough on crime” stance, Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torrez came out the winner, backed by powerful party machines. He faces Republican newcomer Jeremy Gay, a Gallup attorney and Marine Reservist Judge Advocate General (JAG) officer.

Torrez seems to be getting the nods and endorsements for experience. He’s 13 years older than Gay, who is just 33. And his career has been spent in prosecution. Torrez served as an Assistant US Attorney before running for DA.

Gay has an impressive resume, though, too, even if it is shorter, and it is broader. Remember, the Attorney General is not just the state’s chief prosecutor. The AG is also responsible for civil matters, water law, child and family welfare, Native American legal matters, corporate law – essentially any legal matter that involves the state.

Gay’s Gallup practice is full spectrum: criminal law, family law, Native American law, civil litigation. Military JAG officers don’t choose a specialty; they can be assigned criminal defense, prosecution, general services – the full gamut. But Gay also has the Federal props. He was appointed a Special Assistant US Attorney. What he lacks in years he makes up for in range.

I can see where voters would see Torrez as an easy button after two terms as DA in the state’s busiest district, following a stint as an Assistant US Attorney. I do think it is important to look at the quality of that tenure as much as the duration. Because I have some issues with it.

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First, he’s been involved in two serious mismanagements of evidence in criminal cases. In 2012 he was accused by a federal judge of altering a recorded transcript to favor the prosecution. The accusation was later removed from the judge’s original order in January 2013 at the request of the US Attorney’s Office. In what was clearly a quid pro quo, the US Attorney’s Office dismissed the case against the defendant the day after the amended ruling.

According to the 2016 Albuquerque Journal story on the incident, the US Attorney’s Office made the request to the judge because the accusation would result in an internal Justice Department inquiry and possible disciplinary action. Torrez left the US Attorney’s Office six months after the judge’s amended ruling.

Then there’s the Victoria Martens case. The horrific murder and dismemberment of a little girl in 2016 shocked Albuquerque. In June 2018 Torrez held a press conference and admitted that most of the details released to the press about the case were “simply not true” and that his office knew that they had no evidence placing Martens’ mother’s boyfriend at the murder scene, although he had been in pretrial confinement for nearly two years at that point.

This is a problem for me. The defendants in these two cases are not upstanding citizens, especially in the case of Fabian Gonzales, who has been found guilty of child abuse resulting in death in the Martens case (six years later) and is awaiting sentencing. But that doesn’t give prosecutors the right to do what they please when evidence doesn’t support it. And I don’t want someone who is laissez-faire with evidence running our state’s top law office.

Jeremy Gay may be young but he’s not making headlines for the wrong reasons. And interestingly, he’s taken a stand against legislation that would create a “rebuttable presumption” whereby the burden of proof would fall on the defense to make the case for certain defendants – those who are accused of violent crimes or repeat offenders – to be released from jail before trial.

Torrez is a big proponent of rewardable assumption. Is that because he’s tough on crime? Or is he looking to reduce his workload as a prosecutor? Given his track record, it’s a fair question. Gay is adamant that the principle of “innocent until proven guilty” makes rebuttable assumption a non-starter.

In this race, Torrez is clearly the seasoned politician with money behind him. And there are politics to be played in the AG’s office to be sure. But it might be nice to just vote in a good lawyer. It’s something to think about.

Merritt Hamilton Allen is a PR executive and former Navy officer. She appears regularly as a panelist on NM PBS and is a frequent guest on News Radio KKOB. A Republican, she lives amicably with her Democratic husband north of I-40 where they run two head of dog, and two of cat. You can be reached at [email protected]

This article originally appeared on Carlsbad Current-Argus: Pay attention to the attorney general’s race

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