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Felony cases sit for months before seeing grand jury

Jen French
May 10, 2017 07:37 AM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Victims of crime deserve their cases to be taken seriously and for justice to be swift. On the other side of the coin, those accused of crimes are constitutionally entitled to a speedy trial.

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After months of tracking felony cases, 4 Investigates learned a handful of high-profile cases were not being transferred from Metro Court to Bernalillo County District Court in a timely fashion. The two buildings sit next to each other on the corner of Lomas and Fourth.

As high school sweethearts 35 years ago, Ron Van Why wooed Shirley with his 1979 Pontiac Firebird Formula.

"I don't know. We just fit,” Ron Van Why said.

The couple got hitched and had a son.

“She was just a strong, a strong wife,” Ron Van Why said.

“Ron got that car to entice him to date her,” said Rita Varley, Shirley Van Why’s younger sister.

At 7:41 a.m. last Aug. 10, Shirley Van Why was driving the same exact 1979 Pontiac Firebird Formula. An accountant, she was on her way to see a client.

"She loved that car,” Ron Van Why said.

Albuquerque police say Cynthia Silva was under the influence of meth when she rear-ended Shirley, killing her.  Shirley’s sisters, Varley and Renee Atkerson, can’t forget the day.

"Her husband was 10 minutes behind her in traffic,” Varley said.

“He came upon the accident and he saw his car, his wife sitting there,” Atkerson said.

For 10 months, Van Why’s family didn’t hear anything from prosecutors. There was no movement, no answers. Their case was stuck in a courthouse firewall.  Cynthia Silva is now scheduled to see a grand jury on Monday, May 15.

4 Investigates tracked other cases and found other families enduring the same slow, painful criminal court process.

"Because when you don't hear anything back or you don't get any replies back—you just do give up hope,” said Susan, the mother of a 10-year-old rape victim.

4 Investigates chose the name “Susan” to conceal the identity of the rape victim and her mother. Police accused Tannen Pierce of raping the little girl over the course of three years. Pierce is the father of one of the girl’s friends.

Nine months after Pierce was arrested, he has yet to be assigned a case number in Bernalillo County District Court.

“Having to go back and get physically examined again,” Susan said. “To make sure there are no STDs, you know? All of this. Going through therapy. Going through, I mean, we’re on the ball. We're on the ball."

Susan wants to know if lady justice is on the ball. The Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office admits there are about 8,000 pending felony cases.

Susan isn’t the only worried mother. Willow Muniz-Prior was booked in the metro jail for alleged sexual exploitation of a child. His case was initiated on April 13, 2016. Thirteen months later, his case still doesn’t have a Bernalillo County District Court case number assigned.

"This office adopted a policy that it wouldn't move forward with grand jury presentations until it had completed every aspect of the investigation and gathered every piece of discovery because they didn't want to have a case dismissed,” said Raul Torrez, Bernalillo County District Attorney.

Torrez said the office is working with law enforcement to ensure plenty of evidence is gathered in order to prosecute defendants.

"We're working with our law enforcement partners to make sure we have more complete investigations,” Torrez said. “That's part of the problem.  In the past, we use to be able to continue the process of gathering information [during the court process].”

Torrez blames a 2015 New Mexico State Supreme Court Rule that requires Bernalillo County District arraignments to happen 10 days after an indictment, arrest or filing of a case, whichever happens last. The rule was created to speed up felony cases and lower the jail population.

It has instead caused a few felony cases in Metro Court to be frozen in time, waiting to be transferred to District Court.  “Freezing time” gives prosecutors time to build a case.

"The implementation of that rule led to the dismissal of hundreds if not thousands of cases and the suppression of evidence in a number of instances,” Torrez said.

Torrez wants to change the state’s attempt to balance justice.

"The pattern is there, but the court system doesn't hold them accountable,” Rita Varley said. 

Credits

Jen French

Copyright 2017 KOB-TV LLC, a Hubbard Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved

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