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Raúl Torrez had left his post as assistant attorney general to begin a White House fellowship when he learned that a controversial manslaughter case he had filed against three Raton police officers in the death of a suspect in 2007 was going off the rails.
A new medical investigator assigned to the case before trial changed the cause of death to accidental, and then AG Gary King ultimately dismissed the case in 2009.
“I remember being the first person in the state of New Mexico to go speak to the family of this deceased young man. His father was telling me in Spanish that no one from the government had ever spoken to him, never cared about his boy. When I left New Mexico for DC, I thought the case was going to be aggressively pursued and it just wasn’t.
The experience remains with Torrez, now Bernalillo County’s 2nd Judicial District Attorney, as he seeks to become the state’s next attorney general. He faces State Auditor Brian Colón in the June 7 Democratic primary for the nomination.
“What I learned was that if I wanted to have the ability to initiate and have the kind of change I wanted to see, I had to be able to hold a position of authority. kind of inspired to recognize that if I wasn’t the ultimate decision-maker, I couldn’t control the outcome.
In his second four-year term as DA, Torrez is proud of his “no-compromise approach” to prosecuting criminals and trying to stop them from re-victimizing society, even as he has alienated some lawmakers and judges. along the way.
“I have that sense of urgency. Part of that is rooted in people getting hurt and people dying, and I see that. It’s not theoretical.
He has suffered a few defeats, such as in the last legislative session when he led an effort, backed by Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham and Mayor Tim Keller, to change the method by which state judges determine whether a defendant will be released pending trial. He advocates a model used by federal courts that makes it easier for judges to detain suspects charged with certain violent crimes before trial.
The debate over whether bail reform provides community safety is unfolding in Albuquerque and other U.S. cities where crime has increased. Data so far shows that a small percentage of criminals commit new crimes if released pending trial. But Torrez pledges to continue working on remand reform, which he admits is “a politically complicated thing to do.”
Earlier this year, he hit back when legislative analysts cited statistics showing his office’s conviction rate for violent crimes fell to 59% in 2020 – the year the pandemic hit. Torrez countered that data from his office showed a 78.5% conviction rate for violent crimes that year.
Torrez attributed some firings to witnesses who did not show up. And some state cases have been thrown out due to a practice he started several years ago in which more than 500 major crimes, many involving firearms, were sent to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for be prosecuted. Typically, these defendants are more often held pending trial in federal court, and the penalties if convicted are often harsher.
“I say the harsh, uncomfortable, difficult things that need to be said, because they’re said by the victims we serve, and they’re said by the people in my community who are afraid of crime,” Torrez said. in an interview last week. “They don’t care what is politically convenient or inconvenient for this party. They want the problem solved.
Torrez, 45, said he believes the next attorney general should be independent and non-political. And the emphasis must be “on the rule of law and on the rules. So this idea of my ruffled feathers, and my willingness to ruffle the feathers is not a liability. Its an asset. It’s essential to get the job done. There must be some separation from politics.
He believes that this kind of independence is crucial to representing the interests of taxpayers in complex civil litigation against big business and in cases of public corruption, which are key roles of the attorney general’s office.
Torrez also acknowledges that the AG’s office will not have the front-line impact on violent crime that DA offices have in terms of the number of cases prosecuted.
“(As a DA,) I’m a Walmart versus what is essentially a boutique (in the GA office).”
Q&A: Democratic Attorney General Candidate Raúl Torrez
NAME: Raúl Torrez POLITICAL PARTY: Democrat OCCUPATION: District Attorney HOME CITY: Albuquerque RELEVANT EXPERIENCE:…
The Jesse Saenz Affair
The 2007 death of Raton’s Jesse Saenz was “a politically sensitive death in small town custody,” Torrez told the Journal last week.
“That’s precisely the kind of thing the attorney general’s office can do. If the GA office is not politically willing to take on this, if it is not sufficiently staffed with the right kind of people who are trained and prepared to do this, there are certainly things, cases, which will remain unsupervised.
Saenz, who police arrested on a charge of criminal damage to property, was shocked, handcuffed and restrained face down by officers in the back of a patrol car. One sat on top of him, Torrez recalled. By the time he arrived at the jail he was lifeless, Torrez said.
“There was no way the local district attorney was going to pursue the case,” Torrez added. As AG’s office prosecutor, Torrez said he has launched an investigation, with the support of two New Mexico State Police detectives. After months of work, the agents were indicted for manslaughter. As he prepared for his trial as lead prosecutor, Torrez received a call from the Obama administration to do his fellowship.
After leaving the AG’s office, a new pathologist who had not examined the body changed the original IMO decision, determining that the death was attributable to cocaine in Saenz’s system, Torrez recalled.
The year after the criminal charges were dismissed, the city of Raton agreed to a $1 million settlement of an excessive force lawsuit brought by Saenz’s estate.
Fight against crime
Torrez, the son of longtime federal prosecutor Presiliano Torrez, is a Harvard graduate. He went to the London School of Economics before choosing to return to New Mexico to become a prosecutor.
After his stint in the office of King’s AG, Torrez served as an associate attorney in the United States. He also made time to work in the tech world of Silicon Valley, which he says opened his eyes years later to the value of using cutting-edge technology to catch and prosecute criminals. the crimes in Albuquerque.
After his election as district attorney in 2017, he said he inherited a district attorney’s office in disarray, with 40 years of uncharged homicide cases. It had a backlog of 8,000 cases.
Since tackling the backlog, he’s created a Crime Strategies Unit, which analyzes social media and phone forensics, and leveraged forensic genealogy to catch and charge two men for rapes not resolved years ago.
He also emphasized pre-trial diversion and drug treatment for some defendants who can “get their lives back together.” His office now publishes a list on its website of law enforcement officers who have been identified in criminal court records as having potential credibility issues such as dishonesty, bias, criminal acts or misconduct. .
Torrez touts his “extraordinarily strong relationships with the business community” and with environmental groups.
He also enlisted the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology and volunteers from Sandia National Labs in the quest “to use data and analytics to be smart and strategic in solving crime.” .
When Torrez graduated from Stanford Law School, most of his school friends were going to $160,000 a year jobs. He accepted a $37,000-a-year job at the Valencia County District Attorney’s Office.
“I always pay off student loans,” Torrez said. His wife, Nasha Torrez, is also a lawyer. They have two children aged 9 and 12.
Torrez says he sometimes thinks twice about the career path he’s taken, but he gets a dose of “what matters” when he speaks with victims and their families.
Torrez was accused in an ad endorsed by Democratic AG candidate Brian Colón of causing the death of UNM baseball player Jackson Weller in May 2019.
The man ultimately convicted of the death, Darian Bashir, had previously faced a felony charge related to a non-fatal shooting in 2017, but a judge dismissed the case after a series of procedural missteps by one from prosecutors in Torrez, who was later fired. Bashir was re-arrested for shooting at or from a motor vehicle, and Torrez’s office sought to keep Bashir in jail citing his dangerousness, but a judge ruled there were insufficient criteria for hold it.
A month later, Weller was killed in downtown Albuquerque.
Weller’s father, Patrick Weller, last week called on Colón to remove the ad from the campaign, saying his son’s likeness had been used without the family’s permission. Weller also called the announcement “misleading,” adding that Torrez and his office “are not responsible” for Jackson’s death. (Colón refused).
Torrez said his office is in “a never-ending process of engineering and re-engineering the system we use.”
“I have 100 lawyers in the building and 100,000 cases in five years. We are going to have problems. And not only that, we are an institution that depends on other institutions.
Torrez points out that he skipped kindergarten because he needed more structure. So his parents put him in “advanced kindergarten”. He became an athlete at Sandia Prep School while excelling academically.
He remembers debating China trade policy when he was 13 at St. John’s College in Santa Fe. He was the youngest member of Model UN’s debating team.
As the son of a criminal prosecutor, he recalls being a boy, “being out in places, and people were coming to see my dad and they were strangers (victims or their families) and they were crying and hugging him. in their arms.”
“Part of the reason I tried to seek leadership positions was that I could see that my dad was making a difference one case at a time. He was helping people. I was in a position of authority, I could really help. I could help thousands of people. But as my wife would say, it comes at a cost.