Public defenders hit speed bumps in protecting inmates from COVID-19

The prosecutor made clear what it would take to keep a woman, twice accused of driving while intoxicated, out of jail. “It’s a Corona SALE a ‘BOGO’ buy one get one! She only has to do one of everything and it gets credited to the concurrent one,” senior trial prosecutor John Bernitz wrote in an email to the defendant’s attorney. 

Bernitz’s conditions were in response to public defender Earl Rhoads, who had asked why the McKinley County District Attorney’s office waited for more than two months to call for the detention of a woman who was already facing open container and aggravated drinking and driving charges from last year. In October 2019, the woman was accused of drinking and driving when a state police officer said he found her asleep in her running car, outside a gas station in Gallup. The original criminal complaint alleged that the woman admitted to consuming alcohol and parking at the gas station to “recover.” A state magistrate judge released the woman on a $1,500 bond.

NM public defender staff member tests positive for COVID-19

The New Mexico Law Offices of the Public Defender announced Tuesday that it closed its Santa Fe office after a staff member tested positive for COVID-19. 

According to a press release from the LOPD, the staff member had limited contact with other lawyers or clients, partially because of visitor restrictions at the Santa Fe detention center, Santa Fe’s district court and LOPD’s own office closures. About two weeks ago, the LOPD closed all of its physical offices, opting to conduct business only by phone or video conferencing. 

Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur, in a statement, said the employee will stay at home and that the LOPD will continue to limit person-to-person interaction. 

“We’re thankful our employee is able to quarantine at home at this time,” Baur said. “We will continue to be proactive with measures to protect the health of our employees, our colleagues in the justice system, and our clients.”

The LOPD was one of the first institutions in the state’s criminal justice system to close their offices and call on the state Supreme Court to significantly increase restrictions. State courts were eventually ordered by the high court to postpone all new jury trials, limit the number of people in courtrooms and conduct all business over the phone or by video, except in emergency situations. 

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NM Supreme Court orders further COVID-19 restrictions for state courts

The New Mexico Supreme Court announced Tuesday further restrictions for court proceedings across the state. 

The court’s updated order, which will go into effect immediately, also suspended all trials that have not already started until April 30. In a statement, New Mexico Supreme Court Chief Justice Judith Nakamura said the order will help preserve the integrity of the justice system while also providing safety from COVID-19, a disease from the coronavirus. “The precautionary measures imposed by the Judiciary today will provide additional safeguards for all New Mexicans while allowing necessary court functions to continue,” Nakamura said. But she said it is also imperative the courts remain open. “Especially during a public health emergency, courts must not close because they deliver vital services required in our justice system to ensure community safety,” Nakamura said.

House panel rejects bill to bring back death penalty

When Juan Melendez was on Florida’s death row for a murder conviction, his mother built an altar with a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe surrounded by roses. She said five rosaries a day, asking for a miracle to exonerate him and bring him home safely. She also wrote Melendez a letter saying, “Have faith, put your trust in God and that miracle will happen. One day, you will be free.” It took 17 years, but the miracle happened.

Lawmakers hear about alternative to incarceration for opiate addicts

Supporters of a pilot program in Santa Fe that takes a different approach to dealing with those addicted to opiates, including heroin, than incarceration spoke to legislators on Tuesday. The supporters are looking for $200,000 in funding for the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD, program which is modeled after a program in Seattle that has shown success in dealing with those addicted to opioids. A previous $200,000 funding request was vetoed by Gov. Susana Martinez. The Courts, Corrections & Justice Interim Committee hearing took place on Tuesday. Emily Kaltenbach, the state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, explained that the program “redirects people who have probable cause for arrest for low-level drug offenses” to a more treatment-based program.