Updated: May 01, 2020 03:34 PM
Created: April 29, 2020 10:21 PM
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Public defender Ben Smith was sitting at a desk in his Albuquerque office. In front of him were two computers and a notepad. Most of his coworkers were working from home.
He was in the middle of an arraignment, looking at the faces of his client, a District Court judge and the prosecutor on the case, but seeing them on a video chat conference call.
“We would enter a plea of not guilty,” he told the judge, having just confirmed the decision over the phone with his client.
This is court now in New Mexico.
The state’s criminal court system has slowed and has faced major changes under COVID-19 outbreak conditions, affecting hundreds of local families.
KOB 4 got an inside look at the frustrations felt by the lawyers, defendants and judges as they hold virtual court proceedings.
There’s delayed justice for victims, and those accused are waiting longer to possibly be free.
Some cases will be delayed by at least months, as courts are handling about half the usual number of cases, and even those are moving slowly and facing hiccups. Attorneys say they’re nearly at a “standstill.”
There are challenges with technology. Like the thousands of other people across the country holding meetings over video chat services like Zoom and Google Meet, they can inadvertently talk over one another and fail to be on the same page.
“It’s been very difficult for us. This has presented a whole lot of new challenges for us,” Smith said.
There are other communication challenges too.
During a virtual hearing, defense attorneys have to stop the proceedings, mute their mics and call the defendant over the phone.
Plus, because they can’t visit their clients in-person and often have to rely on technology within the jail system, lawyers say they’re spending far less time talking with them overall, making it much more difficult for them to build trust.
“We’re helping people who are in crisis, people who are very often victims of trauma, victims of crimes themselves, dealing with very significant issues, and we have to help them through a very scary system,” Smith said.
Jennifer Barela, who, as the District Defender, oversees the Albuquerque Law Offices of the Public Defender, says face-to-face meetings just can’t be replaced.
“You’re not going to be able to understand what they’re going through, why they got here,” Barela said.
Bernalillo County prosecutors are in the same boat, and District Attorney Raul Torrez is vocal about the problems.
“It’s been extraordinarily challenging as it has for everybody in the world. We’ve had to learn how to do virtually everything that we got accustomed to inside the criminal justice system in a different way,” he said.
He says these conditions have exposed some inefficiencies in our state’s system, and even without COVID-19 modifications some proceedings just take longer in New Mexico compared to in other states.
In light of these new delays, he’s asked our state’s supreme court to help streamline the system.
“Do the current rules and practices for our preliminary hearings match the scale of the challenge? Our view is that they don’t,” Torrez said.
His staff members are communicating with victims and their families who are waiting even longer than they planned for justice.
“We make a commitment to them that just as soon as we can get the infrastructure in place and the rules in place, that we’ll be able to initiate their cases and move forward,” he said.
The hundreds who are in jail with no way out right now are waiting too, hopeful for release. It’s a situation that frustrates the public defenders.
“They’re being held without bond. It’s unlikely that that trial date is actually going to stay because we’re going to have all this backlog from the months that we’re not having trials,” Barela said.
They don’t know how long the backlog will last, and it’s uncertain how it will be handled, including which cases will take priority.
Correction: In an earlier version of this story, KOB 4 incorrectly referred to District Court instead of Metro Court regarding court processes and changes.
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