Challengers rebuke incumbent as DA race begins


This story has been updated with additional reporting on the event.

MESILLA — The race for District Attorney is the hottest in Doña Ana County, and it just might be the most important.

A moderator dropped that declarative on to a crowd of about 100 people following a two-hour debate Tuesday evening.

Gathered in the ballroom of Mesilla’s Palacio Bar, a faint hint of alcohol and the echo of a hockey game served as the backdrop to five attorneys pitching their best cases to be the area’s top prosecutor.

All the candidates appealed to fears of crime but provided differing solutions. Some argued the office should be open to the public. The Republican even evoked Susana Martinez, who rode her term in the DA’s office into the governor’s mansion.

But during the debate, no one took more heat than the incumbent, Gerald Byers. The challengers questioned the high turnover of assistant district attorneys and the long processing time for cases to resolve.

Some accused Byers of overcharging defendants. Others said he undercharged. Byers defended his four years. He gave himself five stars but later acknowledged room for improvement.

“This is very important,” said moderator and organizer Arturo Uribe. “This is probably the most important, sexiest, hottest race in Doña Ana County.”

The 3rd Judicial District Attorney election is the most competitive, that’s for certain. Six candidates filed to run in March. A judge disqualified one candidate, leaving four Democrats and one Republican.  

In the Democratic primary, Byers faces Las Cruces defense attorneys Shaharazad Booth, Ramona Martinez and County Manager Fernando Macias. The winner of the primary on June 7 then faces defense attorney and Republican Michael Cain on Nov. 7.

What’s wrong with the DA’s office?

Early in the debate, moderator Kelly O'Connell asked the candidates what they thought was wrong with the office. O'Connell said it was meant to be a lightning-round question. It became one of the night’s flashpoints.

“All of us here agree,” Cain said. "The amount of staff should be about 30 to 35.”

According to Byers, the office has 19 attorneys. He has funding for 22 but said he keeps three positions open to fund other office functions. Cain then took it a step further.

“There are people who live in this county, who are experienced prosecutors who are commuting every night to Deming and to Alamogordo because they refuse to work in this DA’s office,” Cain said.

For Martinez, the answer came down to community, a lack of resources and failure to prosecute people who are repeatedly charged. Martinez also offered solutions to the three problems she posed. Because of the lack of community engagement, she said she would open the office to area stakeholders. For resources, Martinez said the DA’s office should have a strong presence in recruiting young lawyers at local law schools. For repeat offenders, she foresaw the DA’s office taking a role in addressing root causes like poverty and mental health.  

“We can lock them up, but they're going to be coming back into the community. So, unless we're addressing those underlying root causes with behavioral health and mental health services, those issues are not going to be addressed,” Martinez said.

Byers spoke next, touting his partnerships. Byers talked about a deal with the U.S. Border Patrol to prosecute people who flee its officers while crossing into the U.S. near Santa Teresa. He also spoke about his office's work securing funding for a new case management system.

“That’s how we improve,” Byers said.

Booth echoed the sentiments of Cain and Martinez. She also noted that local defense attorneys weren’t told a new case management system had been implemented.

“Lack of communication is a fundamental problem with this district attorney's office,” Booth said. “This lack of communication that’s spreading throughout all of it is why we're in front of the courts fighting and screaming, ‘Where's my discovery?’”

Outside communication, Booth said she also wants to bring the community into the office.

Macias, however, said the problems that plagued the office were systemic in the criminal justice system. He stopped short of specifying those issues.

“That goes far beyond just the district attorney's office,” Macias said. “Every stakeholder in this process has a level of liability and responsibility to improve the system.”

Macias added that early intervention would also be critical to stem the flow of people entering the system.

Are cases being processed properly?

Another question that put the challengers on offense, and set Byers to defend his record, involved the timeliness of cases.

“In your opinion, is the District Attorney’s Office, their caseload, is it being processed timely?” asked a member of the audience.

“Certainly, a percentage of it is, but a significant percentage is not,” said Macias. “That's why there's such a high rate of dismissal cases.”

The actual percentage of dismissed cases has not been made public. In January, Byers told a reporter that his office did not keep that data, but the number is likely high.

According to local reporting, the state Supreme Court bestowed a case management order on Las Cruces in 2023. The order had two purposes.

First, the CMO was meant to reduce the caseload for district court. Second, it was meant to reduce the time needed to resolve cases. The CMO created separate tracts for cases varying in the severity of allegations and complexity. A murder case has different expectations and deadlines than a burglary, for example.

But much of Tuesday evening’s debate was not about what the CMO was but how it impacted Doña Ana County and whose fault that was.

For Macias, the answer to improving timeliness came down to expertise: expertise, he argued, that he possessed.

“You have to find ways to fast-track cases, you have to have the skills and you have to have the mentoring within the prosecutor's office to make sure that you can address a broader range of cases,” Macias said. “I don't think that you would see these many people running for the district attorney's office if we believed that that is being done appropriately this time.”

Booth spoke about a client of hers who was charged with embezzlement. The client lost her teaching license and retirement savings and spent two years fighting the charges, Booth said. It came to nothing.

“Why? Because the case wasn't investigated, to begin with. That's what's happening at this district attorney's office, a district attorney's office that did so poorly when it came to timely prosecution of cases that the New Mexico Supreme Court gave us our own very special, unique order to tell us how to prosecute a case,” Booth said.

The 3rd Judicial District was chosen for the CMO because of the caseload. However, the state Supreme Court also indicated that it planned to roll out similar orders in all districts in future years. This judicial district would be a test case, they said.

Booth also said timeliness delays stemmed from mismanagement and understaffing.

Cain agreed with Booth. He felt the CMO was a condemnation of Byers and his office.

“It was done because the district attorney's office cannot and will not prosecute cases appropriately,” he said.

Cain took it a step further. He said the CMO—which also places deadlines on defense attorneys—had forced cases to go to trial before they were ready.

“Here's a reason why you see all of us up here. Things are broken, folks. A lot of it is affecting this community,” Cain said.

Martinez also did not shy away from attributing timeliness issues to Byers. She highlighted a client of hers who had experienced a violent crime. The client, Martinez said, went through nine prosecutors in the two years.

“So, can you imagine if you were a victim of a serious, violent crime, and you had to tell your story eight or nine different times? That's already traumatic as it is,” Martinez said.

Martinez also noted that the Supreme Court laid down the first CMO in Albuquerque and intended it to hit across the state. The goal of the CMO is important, Martinez added. Being a victim of crime, waiting for years as the defendant is out on bond—or being accused of a crime and having the charges and potential sentence hang over you for years—is an unfair situation, Martinez said.

“So the short answer is no. And how you fix that is by bringing a functional, competent office back into its competence,” Martinez said.

Byers got extra time to answer this question. He highlighted the other two judicial districts with CMOs and said the order was administrative, not punitive.  He connected it to the 2016 constitutional amendment that ended cash bail in New Mexico.

Bail reform, as it’s commonly called, was approved by over 90 percent of the voters. But some, Byers included, have suggested the voters have buyer’s remorse.

“What the people did not understand, and what they were not ready for, was whenever the Supreme Court Rules Committee handed down the rules for pretrial detention,” Byers said.

If you’re accused of a crime, you have the right to await trial outside of jail. In the American criminal justice system, an accusation is not a conviction. But that raises the question: What if the person accused is dangerous or skips town?

Before 2016, New Mexico answered that question by enforcing cash bail. The thinking goes that if someone is willing to put down hundreds or thousands of dollars, they’re less likely to commit more crimes or skip out on court. According to multiple studies, this meant people with money could leave jail and those without couldn’t.

After 2016, New Mexico answered this question with pretrial detention and pretrial services. If prosecutors can prove that a person is dangerous and that nothing—such as an ankle monitor or a surety bond—can keep the public safe, then that person is jailed. If not, that person is allowed to leave jail and told to keep in contact with the court via pretrial services.

“That is what we are living with now. That is what is commonly called a ‘catch and release.’ That is what's called a ‘revolving door,’” Byers said. “That has nothing to do with the District Attorney's Office, regardless of who is in the driver's seat.”

Byers touted recent legislative changes, making jailing people with pending charges who commit crimes easier. That’ll make a difference, he said.

“There are constraints and restrictions that apply to this office, regardless of who is in the driver's seat. And please keep that in mind regardless of whatever the spin maybe because I'm the one who has been doing the job for the last three years,” Byers said.

District Attorney, debate, 2024 elections, Dona Ana County