MON: ACLU Sues State Over Inmate Treatment Amid Pandemic, + More

Aug 24, 2020

New Mexico ACLU Sues Over Inmate Treatment Amid Pandemic - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and a group of criminal defense lawyers claim in a lawsuit filed Monday that state officials aren't doing enough to protect the health of inmates amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The complaint alleges that the government is refusing to enforce its own mandates for social distancing, heightened hygiene practices and quarantine measures.

It cites violations of the state constitution, suggesting that prison conditions "have become so intolerable as to constitute cruel and unusual punishment."

"The state's failure to stop the spread of COVID-19 in prisons has already resulted in tragic loss of life and immense human suffering," Paul Haidle, executive director at the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said in a statement. "People behind prison walls are living in fear and cannot afford to wait another day for conditions to improve."

On Monday, state health officials announced 76 additional cases of COVID-19 and two additional deaths.

There have been a total of 24,469 cases since the pandemic began and 747 deaths.

The lawsuit lists nine inmates as plaintiffs who are being held at state lockups for various reasons including alleged probation violations. Most of them are women and all but two people listed in the complaint are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses.

The lawsuit seeks immediate relief aimed at protecting the constitutional rights of all inmates in state custody.

Corrections officials did not comment directly on the pending litigation but said there have been just over 500 confirmed cases among state inmates since the pandemic began, with 11,765 tests being done so far. Only 25 cases remain active, according to the department's count.

Advocates were unsuccessful earlier this year when they brought a similar case before the New Mexico Supreme Court. They argued that the state put people at risk by not substantially reducing the prison population. The court denied the petition, ruling that the groups could not prove the state's actions were deliberate or intentional.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in early April had already issued an executive order directing the state Corrections Department to compile a list of incarcerated individuals who are eligible for early release. Under the order, inmates who are within 30 days of release would be eligible as long as they are not serving time for felony drunk driving, domestic abuse or assault on a peace officer and are not sex offenders.

As Friday, 143 individuals have been released under the governor's order, said department spokesman Eric Harrison.

He said efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have been put in place at the state's 11 prison facilities. For example, all new intakes are quarantined for 14 days and immediately tested for the virus.

The department is testing 50% of staff every week at each facility for the foreseeable future. State corrections and health officials also will continue satellite testing of the inmate population to include high-risk individuals and new intakes.

The weekly hygienic supply for every inmate also has been doubled, Harrison said.

State data also shows more than 800 COVID-19 cases have been reported among inmates in federal custody within the state since the pandemic began.

In all, health officials reported Monday that there have been nearly 24,470 confirmed cases statewide and 747 deaths in New Mexico related to the coronavirus. That includes four deaths among the population at the state contracted prison in Otero County.

This story has been updated to reflect the Corrections Department is testing 50% of the staff each week.

Thousands Allowed To Bypass Environmental Rules In Pandemic - By Ellen Knickmeyer, Cathy Bussewitz, John Flesher, Matthew Brown And Michael Casey, Associated Press

Thousands of oil and gas operations and other sites have won permission to stop monitoring for hazardous emissions or otherwise break government rules because of the coronavirus outbreak.

The findings come in an investigation by The Associated Press. The Trump administration announced the first nationwide, extended easing of environmental enforcement in March.

Oil and gas companies had complained that the pandemic was complicating compliance with pollution rules. Facilities won permission more than 3,000 times to skimp on compliance during the sweeping government clemency.  

The Environmental Protection Agency says its clemency was not a license for increased pollution.

Penny Aucoin, a resident of New Mexico's oil-rich Permian Basin, said since the pandemic, she and her husband have spent days begging regulators to investigate surges of noxious gas or hisses that they feared could signal a dangerous leak from one of the many oil and gas companies operating near their mobile home.

"There's nobody watching," Aucoin said. "A lot of stuff is going wrong. And there's nobody to fix it."

Maddy Hayden, New Mexico's environmental spokesperson, said her agency stopped in-person investigations of citizen air-quality complaints from March to May to protect staff and the public but stood ready to respond to emergencies.

Almost every state reported fielding requests from industries and local governments to cut back on compliance.

New Mexico Republican Leader Sees Quiet Support For TrumpAssociated Press

A half-dozen delegates from New Mexico are attending the Republican National Convention with hopes that President Donald Trump can reverse a progressive political shift at home.

State Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce on Sunday said Trump is well-positioned to assemble a silent majority in New Mexico by winning over people who voted in 2016 for Libertarian former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson.

Trump lost the 2016 vote in the state by 8 percentage points to Hillary Clinton.

Trump on Monday cast doubt on the integrity of the fall election in a surprise opening day appearance at the scaled-down convention.

Pearce expects the convention to highlight Trump's approach to civil liberties involving gun rights and free-speech issues, along with an aggressive approach to immigration and law enforcement.

New Mexico's Unemployment Rate Now Exceeds National Rate - Albuquerque Journal, Associated Press

The unemployment rate in New Mexico has jumped to 12.7%. That's the highest rate the state has seen since the coronavirus pandemic began in the U.S. in March. 

The Albuquerque Journal reports the figure is up from 8.4% in June. That reverses a downward trend since April, when the rate was 11.3%. 

The national unemployment rate was 10.2% in July, down from 11% in June. 

State Workforce Solutions Secretary Bill McCamley says the main factor for New Mexico's increase was that temporary furloughs for workers converted into layoffs. 

State officials on Saturday reported 213 additional COVID-19 cases and four additional deaths, increasing New Mexico's totals to 24,302 cases and 743 deaths. 

The Albuquerque metropolitan area reported an unemployment rate of 13.1% in July. The Santa Fe area reported a rate of 13.5%, Las Cruces' figure was 13% and Farmington had a rate of 16%, officials said.

US Senate Hopefuls In New Mexico Feuding Over Debate Lineup - By Russell Contreras, Associated Press

Democratic U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján and Republican Mark Ronchetti's campaigns are feuding over the number of TV debates in the race for the U.S. Senate, agreeing to two so far.

The campaigns recently announced the candidates will take part in a debate sponsored by KOAT-TV and the Albuquerque Journal. Ronchetti's campaign said Monday he will join Luján and participate in another hosted by PBS-affiliate KNME-TV.

But Ronchetti has accepted offers for other debates sponsored by Albuquerque-area outlets KOB-TV and KRQE-TV — something Luján has shunned so far.

Ronchetti is a former meteorologist for KRQE-TV.

Ronchetti immediately accused Luján of "hiding" from voters by not accepting offers from the other outlets.

Luján's campaign downplayed the other networks and said the KNME-TV debate will reach more voters statewide.

Ronchetti had originally called KNME-TV a "liberal front-group." The station is non-partisan and its weekly "New Mexico in Focus" shows regularly host Republican guests. Both are seeking to replace Democratic U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, who is retiring.

Recent Senate races in the state have seen multiple television debates.

University of New Mexico political science professor Lonna Atkeson said it's "ridiculous" that voters may have limited chances to compare candidates outside of television and social media ads.

She said voters could use more debates since the pandemic has halted traditional rallies and meet-and-greet events.

US Senate Hopefuls In New Mexico OK 1 Debate, Fight On More - Russell Contreras Associated Press, KUNM

Democratic U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján and Republican Mark Ronchetti have only agreed to participate in one televised debate in New Mexico's U.S. Senate race. And their campaigns are pointing figures at the other for refusing to join more. 

The campaigns recently announced they will take part in a debate sponsored by KOAT-TV and the Albuquerque Journal. But Ronchetti has accepted offers for debates sponsored by Albuquerque-area outlets KOB-TV and KRQE-TV – something Luján has shunned. Instead, Luján has accepted an invitation from PBS-affiliate KNME-TV. 

Ronchetti worked as the Chief Meteorologist at KRQE for over a decade. The candidate called KNME a "liberal front-group." The New Mexico PBS station is non-partisan and its weekly "New Mexico in Focus" shows regularly host Republican guests.

"In order to maximize the potential that all New Mexicans could tune into the debates, our campaign chose to participate in a statewide debate on free, public broadcasting and in another where a local affiliate partnered with the Albuquerque Journal, the state's largest newspaper," Luján's campaign manager, Travis Brimm, said.

New Mexico Reports 98 New Coronavirus Cases, 2 More Deaths - Associated Press

Health officials in New Mexico report 98 new confirmed COVID-19 cases and two additional deaths as of Sunday. 

The latest numbers from the New Mexico Department of Health increase the state's totals to 24,396 cases and 745 deaths.  

According to Johns Hopkins University data analyzed by The Associated Press, the seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in New Mexico decreased over the past two weeks while the rolling average of deaths was nearly unchanged.

The rolling average for new cases decreased from 198 new cases on Aug. 7 to 138 on Aug. 21, while the rolling average for deaths was just under 5 on Aug. 7 and just over 5 on Aug. 21.

Keller Says ABQ Visitors Can Be Questioned About QuarantiningKOAT-TV, Associated Press 

Albuquerque officials now can question out-of-state visitors and people with out-of-state license plates whether they're obeying New Mexico's quarantine rules, but the city hasn't used that power, Mayor Tim Keller said.

Keller described the new authority during a recent news conference announcing he was signing a new emergency order, KOAT-TV reported.

If out-of-state visitors haven't quarantined for the generally required 14 days, "we would pass on their information to the Department of Health," Keller said.

The city hasn't had to use the power, Keller said. 

"But if we do, we could look at more severe actions like not allowing people to enter facilities unless they can demonstrate they have been here for 14 days. But these are measures we wanted to have in place if things got worse or got worse moving forward," he said. 

Trial Looms For 1 Of 2 Men Accused In 3 Murders Near Dixon - Santa Fe New Mexican, Associated Press

One of two brothers accused in a triple homicide in northern New Mexico in 2018 is scheduled to stand trial this week in Rio Arriba County. 

Prosecutors say 36-year-old John Powell and his 35-year-old brother Roger Gage allegedly shot and killed two men and a woman near Dixon. 

Jury selection in Powell's trial is scheduled Monday and Tuesday. Trial dates for the case against Gage haven't been set. 

The brothers each were charged with three counts of first-degree murder along with burglary, conspiracy and tampering with evidence. 

Killed in the May 2018 shootings were 42-year-old April Browne, 36-year-old Abraham Martinez and 27-year-old Kierin Guillemin. Authorities believe the murders were drug related. 

Police said a surveillance camera at the home captured video of the shootings and the video has been kept under seal for the past two years.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports that parts of the video likely will be played for jurors during Powell's trial.

Nuclear Agency's New Facility To Be Named After 1st Leader - Associated Press

The federal agency that oversees the nation's nuclear weapons cache and key deterrence initiatives around the globe will name its new facility in Albuquerque after a retired Air Force general who was the agency's first administrator. 

The National Nuclear Security Administration's leader announced Friday the facility under construction will be named after Gen. John A Gordon, who died April 19.

NNSA Administrator Lisa E. Gordon-Hagerty said the agency builds upon the "strong foundation" that Gordon set during his tenure from 2000 to mid 2002. 

The new facility is scheduled to be occupied in late 2021 by 1,200 NNSA staff members currently working in 25 separate buildings and facilities.  

After leaving NNSA, Gordon's final federal leadership position was as President George W. Bush's homeland security adviser.

Gordon began his career as a physicist at the Air Force Weapons Laboratory and went on to serve in posts with the Air Force Space Command, the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council at the White house.

Execution Of Native American Man Stirs Emotion Within Tribe - By Felicia Fonseca Associated Press

As a Navajo man sits on federal death row awaiting his upcoming execution date, his tribe is asking officials to spare his life. The stance in support of Lezmond Mitchell is pushing up against the desires of some of the victims' family to see the Wednesday execution move forward. 

Mitchell was convicted in the grisly slayings of a fellow tribal member and her granddaughter in 2001 on the Navajo Nation. He is among a handful of inmates whose executions were announced after a 17-year, informal moratorium with a common thread of crimes against children. 

Mitchell is the only Native American on federal death row. 

The Navajo Nation tribal government has asked President Donald Trump to grant Mitchell clemency. More than a dozen tribal leaders across the country and individual Native Americans have supported the Navajo government's request.

Federal criminal jurisdiction on tribal land dates back to 1885 and stems from Congress' displeasure over how one tribal nation settled a killing with restitution to the victim's family — money, horses and a blanket. The federal authority is still disputed today. 

Earlier this month, attorneys for some of Slim's family and Lee wrote to tribal officials saying they support the federal government's efforts to carry out the execution.

Navajo Nation Reports No New COVID-19 Deaths, 12 More CasesAssociated Press

Navajo Nation health officials have reported a dozen new confirmed cases of COVID-19 but no additional deaths.

That brings the total number of people infected to 9,547 with the known death toll still at 493 as of Sunday night.

The figures were tallied as another 32-hour lockdown on the reservation ended at 5 a.m. Monday. The Navajo Nation lifted its stay-at-home order on Aug. 16, but is asking residents to leave their homes only for emergencies or essential activities.

Much of the Navajo Nation has been closed since March as the coronavirus swept through the vast reservation that extends into New Mexico, Utah and Arizona. 

Navajo Nation Reports 14 New COVID-19 cases, 4 More Deaths - Associated Press

Navajo Nation health officials have reported 14 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 and four additional deaths. That brings the total number of people infected to 9,545 with the known death toll at 493 as of Saturday night as the reservation began another 32-hour lockdown that ends at 5 a.m. Monday. 

Navajo Department of Health officials say 91,856 people have been tested for the coronavirus and 7,060 have recovered. 

The Navajo Nation lifted its stay-at-home order on Aug. 16, but is asking residents to only leave their homes for emergencies or essential activities.