In the Democratic primary race for 1st Judicial District Attorney, challenger Lloyd Drager has made much of the “defense attorney” background of incumbent Angela “Spence” Pacheco’s administration. Whether it’s due to a shift in the office’s philosophy or not, court statistics from Pacheco’s administration compared to that of her predecessor Henry Valdez do show a marked decrease in filing of felony cases overall, with a particular decline in prosecution of sexual assault and DWI crimes.
During Pacheco’s first year, the DA’s office filed 928 cases; that number declined to 768 the following year, but increased again in 2011.
By contrast, in the four years before Pacheco’s term, under then-District Attorney Henry Valdez, the office filed more than 1,000 new cases each year (except for 2006, when it filed 904 new cases).
“The crime rate in Santa Fe didn’t suddenly take a huge dip,” Drager, who worked as chief deputy district attorney under Valdez, says. “It’s a prosecution decision that resulted in those numbers.”
During her first year in office, Pacheco says, transitioning and dealing with a backlog of 7,000 cases held up prosecution. Data from the state Administrative Office of the Courts don’t show a 7,000-case backlog, though. At the start of Pacheco’s term, 1,931 adult criminal cases were pending, along with 155 juvenile cases.
Pacheco also says that one of her goals as district attorney was to improve the quality of cases presented to grand juries for indictment.
“Before I took office, a lot of the feedback I was receiving was [that] the quality of cases that were getting indicted were really very poor,” Pacheco says. “Cases that really should have been misdemeanors were overcharged as felonies.”
Last year, the DA’s office dismissed 27 felony cases of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. That’s actually fewer than in the first two years of Pacheco’s tenure, when the office respectively dismissed 30 and 40 of such cases. By comparison, Valdez’ office dismissed five felony DWIs in 2005, eight in 2006 and nine in 2007.
The highest-profile DWI case was that of Scott Owens, who was acquitted last year of vehicular homicide for his role in the 2009 deaths of four Santa Fe teens. The DA’s office declined to charge him with DWI in hopes of forcing the jury to convict him of vehicular manslaughter. When Owens was arrested this March for another DWI, it counted as his first because of that decision. Pacheco, however, stands behind the choice.
“Our concern was, if we had the DWI, the jurors would just convict on the DWI and acquit on the vehicular [homicide],” Pacheco says. “That’s a calculated risk that you do on every trial.”
Drager, who proposes to create a DWI court to streamline prosecution of such cases, calls the risk calculation “cynical” and says he would have charged Owens with DWI the first time.
The DA’s office has also filed fewer new felony sexual offense cases under Pacheco. Between 2004 and 2007, Valdez’ office filed an average of 34 new such cases each year. By contrast, Pacheco’s has filed an average of 23 per year. Although three went to trial in her first year, none did in the two subsequent years; during Valdez’ last four years, between two and eight cases went to trial.
City of Santa Fe domestic violence and sexual assault liaison Carol Horwitz says she doesn’t fault Pacheco for what she considers a chronic problem.
“It hasn’t been good, but it’s never been good,” Horwitz says of domestic violence and sexual assault prosecutions in the district. “Domestic violence and sexual assault cases are really hard to prosecute.”
Pacheco argues that restructuring her office in the wake of Valdez’ administration is one of her major accomplishments, but by some metrics, it seems that not all of her changes have been positive.