'I have genuine concern for people who get charged in places like Tucumcari or Silver City where there is not a Public Defender’s office' - Scott Wiszniewski, assistant public defender
Ten Months in Jail Despite Innocence
APD Detective Alleged to have Committed Perjury to Put Two Behind Bars
BY DENNIS DOMRZALSKI
If there’s a silver lining in the case of two men falsely charged in the 2015 murder of Jaydon Chavez-Silver, it’s that they were charged in Albuquerque where the Public Defender’s office has a large presence.
And the fact that the grandfather of one of the men is a former APD cop and retired Secret Service agent who knows his way around the criminal justice system.
Had Donovan Maez and Christopher Cruz been charged in Tucumcari or some other small town where the Public Defender’s office has to rely on contract attorneys, and had they not had the help of Maez’s grandfather, they might still be sitting in jail.
Legal experts say that, despite their innocence, without the hundreds of hours of expert investigative and legal help they got, there’s a good chance Maez and Donovan might have taken a plea bargain. And, there are probably others across New Mexico now sitting behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit because they couldn’t get or couldn’t afford proper legal help.
“The real question is what if these guys weren’t arrested in Albuquerque?” said Richard Pugh, who heads the Public Defender’s Albuquerque office. “We have 13 offices [around the state] and we have 33 counties. In every county in which we don’t have an office, we have contract attorneys, and every contract attorney gets a $5,400 flat rate to do a murder case.” That $5,400 can come to as little $15 an hour.
Assistant Public Defender Scott Wisniewski represented Cruz and said he worked at least 100 hours on the case. His investigator put in 75 hours.
“That was probably more time than I’ve spent on any other case, but when you have a case that was as full of holes as this one was, there are a lot of leads to track down,” Wisniewski said.
In the Maez and Cruz cases, the Public Defender’s office arranged for investigators to visit the home where Chavez-Silver was fatally shot; it hired a ballistics expert to reconstruct the shooting; and it hired an expert to review the autopsy report on Chavez-Silver, Wisniewski said.
A visit to the Chavez-Silver home nine months after the shooting revealed just how sloppy APD’s investigation was, Wisniewski said. “We found a shell casing [at the house]. Our investigator brought a metal detector to go over the property,” Wisniewski said.
On June 2, District Attorney Kari Brandenburg’s office dismissed the charges against Maez and Cruz, but only after the two had spent 10 months in jail for a crime they didn’t commit.
On Dec. 19, Maez’s grandfather, Dennis Maez, filed a complaint with the Civilian Police Oversight Agency against the lead detective on the case, Jodi Gonterman. The complaint alleged that Gonterman might have committed perjury and threatened and coaxed witnesses to provide false testimony against his grandson and Cruz. Lawyers for Cruz and Donovan Maez have notified the city that they intend to sue APD over the false charges and false imprisonment.
Wisniewski said that an experienced attorney would probably charge $75,000 to handle a case as complicated as the cases against Maez and Cruz. If a defendant doesn’t have that kind of money, “you are looking at a bargain-basement rate [for an attorney] and they won’t put in the effort because they are not paid to put in the effort,” Wisniewski said. “That really compromises the quality of work.
“I have genuine concern for people who get charged in places like Tucumcari or Silver City where there is not a Public Defender’s office.”
Pugh had the same concern.
“What if these guys had been arrested outside of Albuquerque? What if they had a $5,400 contractor?” Pugh said. “It’s good that in these cases the system worked, but they had to spend 10 months in jail. But in how many other parts of the state does the system not work?”
“We know there are [innocent people in jail], we just don’t know who they are,” Pugh said. “We know that the police don’t have a 100 percent rate of getting these things right.”
Dennis Domrzalski is an associate editor at ABQ Free Press Weekly. Reach him with news tips at firstname.lastname@example.org