Big Case Team | | Santa Fe Reporter
Five homicides across two counties in six hours is the type of case that has caught the attention of the Complex Crimes Unit of the First Judicial District Attorney’s Office.
A Santa Fe jury convicted Damian Herrera, 26, of four of those 2017 murders last April in Santa Fe. (He is awaiting trial for a fifth alleged murder in Taos County.) District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies credits the unit , which she created after taking office in early 2021, securing those convictions.
Murders, crimes against children, and white-collar financial affairs can drag on, often for years. So, in a brainstorming session, the prosecutor’s office group decided that it would be more effective to devote additional resources to large, evidence-heavy and emotionally taxing cases.
“When I started here, we kind of functioned as a seat of our pants to prepare for trial,” Carmack-Altwies told SFR. “Sometimes different pieces of discovery, evidence or trial preparation were all in the hands of different people. It just didn’t make sense for these huge cases because it makes it so easy to lose, forget, or forget things.
Today, the unit includes senior support staff, a certified crime scene technician and an information technology specialist. A rotating cast of attorneys who all have other duties take on the legal direction of cases for the team, whose budget comes from the general fund of the attorney’s office. The state approved a request in the fiscal year 2023 budget for an additional support staff position.
In the past year, the team has had nine homicide cases that resulted in guilty pleas or murder convictions, according to figures provided by the district attorney’s office. Prosecutors dropped one case over discovery issues, and they lost another after witnesses changed their statements.
“It’s amazing, especially when you add in the COVID protocols and the fact that things were slowing down,” Carmack-Altwies says, adding that the team has prosecuted 10 murder cases in a year. The team is “part of the reason we don’t have a backlog in the First Judicial District like other districts.”
Most recently, the unit handled the Estevan Montoya case, which resulted in a first-degree murder conviction after a two-week trial in May for Montoya’s murder of Fedonta “JB” White. At least 10% of the office’s 50 support staff and 18 attorneys have dedicated time to the case, she reports.
Dan Marlowe, Montoya’s attorney, is working on an appeal. He tells SFR that this was probably his last case, as he plans to retire, and that he was unaware of the special unit and did not notice a difference in the procedure.
“I don’t know what their idea of a complex case is, but it’s not my idea of a complex case,” Marlowe says. “As a prosecutor, that would not be a problem for me. The chips are somehow stacked against [the defense] to start.”
The pretrial witness list for Montoya’s trial included about 70 names, while prosecutors – Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Padgett Macias and Blake Nichols – called 30 to the stand. Carmack-Altwies called it “our biggest victory yet and our biggest strike for justice.”
“In front of the courtroom, we had two of our best lawyers on it, but behind the courtroom, they were installed in two different offices of the courthouse”, she tells SFR.
Three people from the complex crimes team worked the case permanently, while a separate victims’ advocacy team was present throughout the trial to help coordinate with witnesses and White’s family.
The group effort, Padgett Macias says, has allowed prosecutors to focus on trials and make a good impression on juries.
Not all cases worked out for the team. For example, last year a county in Santa Fe jury finds not guilty a man accused of shooting a tourist on Airport Road in 2018after companions of the defendant who originally implicated him in the crime testified that another person pulled the trigger.
“There were a number of teenagers together on Airport Road when the victim was shot and they all went in different directions,” Padgett Macias said. “I think the defense managed to solve the case with reasonable doubt that it might have been someone else.”
In a separate case, prosecutors dropped charges against Mario Anchondo in the 2020 shooting death of Ivan Perez. Prosecutors say the Santa Fe Police Department file was missing about 30 pieces of evidence, forcing the prosecutor’s office to drop the case.
Anchondo was later stopped on drug and firearms charges.
“So the good news that comes out of that is that if the evidence ever comes to light, we’ve saved this case from not guilty or not going to trial,” Carmack-Altwies said. “It was, to me, another success of our complex crimes unit, because they realized before we had the trial, ‘We don’t have enough.'”
The state could bring charges against Anchondo again, though Jennifer Burrill, an attorney with the Public Defenders Office, says the cases shouldn’t be brought in the first place until prosecutors have enough evidence. Still, if forming a complex criminal unit means more information sharing and less time arguing over discovery issues, she’s all for it.
“I think prioritizing the most important cases to protect the community is a big part of it. [of] the district attorney…focusing on those they believe will significantly increase community safety,” Burrill says.
The team has 19 active cases in Santa Fe and 11 in Rio Arriba County.
“I’m a lawyer,” says Assistant District Attorney Tony Long. “I can put things in place, but I don’t have that time and that level of organization to do what the team does.”