KRWG

Las Cruces Area Controversy: Grave Concerns About The District Attorney's Office

Sep 28, 2021

 

Credit Peter Goodman

  Commentary: An assistant district attorney’s missed deadlines in the Baby Favi case made headlines. That same fortnight, I read of three more missed deadlines, one by the same ADA. Not good.

That ADA has left, after many years with the Third Judicial District Attorney’s DA’s office. Everyone says he was a good, conscientious attorney. His resignation letter said he just couldn’t stand having such a heavy caseload that he couldn’t do his work properly. “I was shocked, given his deep commitment to the office,” a defense attorney said.

Few Las Crucens choose to move to Alamogordo, Deming, or Carlsbad. (Silver City, maybe.) A dozen ADAs from here are now ADAs in those towns. Some live here, commuting long hours. Why? Not because they love audio books.

Former ADAs, defense counsel, and folks in law enforcement, or other positions dealing regularly with our DA’s Office, are worried. Many say the DA’s Office is so understaffed that it endangers timely, competent prosecution of cases. (The Attorney-General’s Office is aware of local concern.) City detectives are taking a higher percentage of misdemeanor cases to the City Attorney’s Office for filing in Municipal Court. The Sheriff’s Department no longer runs as many arrest warrants or search warrants past the DA, saying response times aren’t quick enough. (Third Judicial District Attorney Gerald Byers says DASO has “our on-call number and my cell-phone.”)

Defense counsel complain that management won’t let ADAs make basic decisions on plea bargains. That means cases drag along, victims get no closure, and defendants wait longer in jail. Byers, whom we elected in 2020, says he tightened things up because each plea agreement goes out over his signature, and younger attorneys miss things – and don’t know what they don’t know.

There are just two deputies (plus Byers) with experience trying major felonies. Byers says there are two more on the way, new hires with extensive experience in other states, awaiting New Mexico licenses.

Critics emphasize turnover. Both former ADAs and defense counsel say some cases have had six or seven attorneys in charge of them over a few years. One defense lawyer said, “What’s really shocking is, I start talking to someone and before I know it, he’s gone, or she’s gone.” One source said several young lawyers “who would have become really good prosecutors” left, partly for lack of mentoring. Byers says he has increased training and has weekly meetings to improve communications.

Morale is reportedly poor. Three women recently received settlements based on alleged mistreatment by Byers when he was chief deputy. That also sparked an effort to unionize, rare among lawyers. (Byers stresses that he treats everyone the same. My guess is that his conflict with the younger lawyers was largely generational.) To everyone’s surprise, Chief Deputy A.J. Salazar was fired recently. He’s served formal notice he may sue. Byers, of course, could not discuss specific personnel.

“I remember when I was the little guy, and I try to treat people with respect, and stand up for people. I tell lawyers, “Don’t say it to your secretary if you wouldn’t say it to a judge,” Byers said.

Byers had responses to each allegation; but because people avoid saying to his face what they say to others, he’s unaware of the extensive criticism. He’s smart and experienced. My hope is that whatever has happened, and whoever bears how much fault, Byers takes these concerns seriously and improves matters ASAP.