Suspension of grand juries during pandemic led to backlog of felony cases, DA’s office says

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.- An important tool to move felony cases through the judicial system was taken away during the pandemic, according to the Office of the Second Judicial District Attorney.

After police make an arrest, prosecutors can either hold a preliminary hearing to establish whether there is enough evidence to move a case forward, or they can go to a grand jury. Grand juries were suspended during the height of the pandemic.

"We had already knew was that grand jury was important, but COVID confirmed it," said Adolfo Mendez, Chief of Policy and Planning at the Office of the Second Judicial District Attorney.

The district attorney’s office said fewer cases are making it to trial, partly because grand juries were suspended.

Starting in 2018, the New Mexico Supreme Court started to phase in changes to cut down on the use of grand juries in Bernalillo County.

Prosecutors were forced to rely more on a preliminary hearing to secure an indictment against someone who has been charged.

At the time, District Attorney Raul Torrez wasn’t happy with this decision.

"My hope is that they would stop this reduction completely until we have an opportunity to understand what all the resource implications are, what it means for victims, what it means for law enforcement, how much is this going to cost," he said in 2018.

The district attorney’s office claims their data shows a drop in the number of cases they’ve prosecuted each time grand jury proceedings were cut back.

Without grand jury proceedings due to COVID-19, there’s a backlog of more than 2,000 felony cases.

As the state reopens, the district attorney’s office said they have started to get more cases through the system.

"We started to see that bounce back," Mendez said. "We’re starting to see our initiation numbers drive back, and we’re going to continue to drive hard to initiate all the cases that need to be initiated as things open up more and push for expansion of the grand jury so we can get all the cases that need to be initiated, initiated."