WED: District Attorney Amends Charges In Protest Shooting, + More

Jun 17, 2020

Prosecutors Amend Charges In New Mexico Protest Shooting - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press, KUNM

Prosecutors in Albuquerque, New Mexico, say an investigation into a shooting during a protest over a statue of a Spanish conquistador is far from complete and they're amending charges against a man accused of opening fire after a fight broke out.

District Attorney Raúl Torrez said Wednesday it's too soon to pursue a charge related to the shooting because investigators still need to identify witnesses, verify video of the incident and gather more evidence.

Prosecutors are instead charging Steven Baca with battery for his interactions with three women during the protest. He's also facing a weapons charge.

Baca, once a candidate for the Albuquerque City Council, remained in custody. His attorney, Jason Bowles, has requested the court to quickly review the circumstances and order Baca's release while prosecutors investigate the case. He said his client had no choice but to defend himself using force.

Albuquerque police turned over the investigation to the State Police and the FBI was assisting.

Torrez said heavy tactics by APD against protesters after the shooting made it impossible for key witnesses to make statements to law enforcement. 

He also said the presence of undercover APD officers at the scene who are key witnesses, but did not intervene when tensions were escalating, also compromises APD's investigation.

Pueblo Leaders Seek 'Meaningful' Resolution To Statue Fight - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Leaders of a coalition that represents Native American pueblo communities in New Mexico are hopeful a "fair and meaningful resolution" can be found as government officials address growing discord over statues of Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate.

One man was shot and injured Monday night after a fight broke out as protesters tried to tear down a statue outside an Albuquerque museum. Another man is facing charges and police are being criticized for how they handled the situation.

J. Michael Chavarria, the governor of Santa Clara Pueblo and chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors, said such incidents need to be avoided and the path forward needs to be one that recognizes a shared history and richness of the state's respective cultures.

He said he appreciated the decision by Rio Arriba County and the city of Albuquerque to remove what he called “symbols of conquest, genocide and racial injustice."

Chavarria added it's fundamentally important that every culture and every individual be treated with dignity and respect.

Governor Wants Public Access To Police Disciplinary Records - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham endorsed reforms that allow election regulators to ship absentee ballots to most registered voters and called for greater public disclosure of police disciplinary records.

On the eve of a special legislative session, the Democratic governor outlined Wednesday a handful of urgent initiatives that she will consider as the lawmakers focus foremost on rewriting the state budget to fill a yawning financial deficit.

At the state Capitol, legislators searched for solutions Wednesday to a $1.7 billion budget deficit for the coming fiscal year. The collapse of the tourism sector and faltering oil prices are hitting public finances especially in New Mexico.

The lead House and Senate budget writing committees met Tuesday with state economists and top financial officials to review financial forecasts that show a likely 25% plunge in general fund revenue for the fiscal year starting July 1.

New solvency proposals would downsize pay raises at schools and state agencies to less than 1% on average, while maintaining a small share of spending to provide free tuition to two-year college students.

Tribal Casinos In New Mexico Reopen Despite State WarningAssociated Press

Multiple tribal casinos in New Mexico have reopened despite recommendations from Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to remain closed to limit the spread of COVID-19.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reported that Isleta Casino & Resort in Albuquerque, Ohkay Hotel Casino in Ohkay Owingeh and Taos Mountain Casino in Taos all have reopened with coronavirus-related precautions.

The governor's spokeswoman, Nora Meyers Sackett, said that all casinos are encouraged to remain closed.

Tribal casinos are controlled by sovereign nations, so the state cannot prohibit them from reopening. Representatives from the casinos did not respond to requests for comment.

The state surpassed 10,000 COVID-19 cases Wednesday and there were 30 more among people held by federal agencies at the Otero County Processing Center.

There were also five additional deaths, bringing the total to 452. That includes a federal inmate at the Otero County Prison Facility. That center, which holds federal and state inmates, has a total of 581 cases.

The Department of Health has found at least one case among residents and/or staff in the last month at nearly 50 long-term care and acute care facilities.

New Mexico Senators Applaud $2.8B Conservation BillAssociated Press

New Mexico's two U.S. senators are applauding approval of a bipartisan bill that would double spending on a popular conservation program and devote nearly $2 billion a year to improve and maintain national parks.

Democrat Tom Udall described it as landmark legislation that will, for the first time, permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million per year.

The fund is fueled by revenues from offshore oil and gas leasing. More than $312 million has been funneled to New Mexico public lands and open spaces since it was established in 1964.

Supporters say the program is a boon to the state's outdoor economy.

According to data compiled by the New Mexico Outdoor Recreation Division, the state's outdoor recreation economy directly supports $1.2 billion in income and 33,500 jobs annually.

Public Access To Statehouse Still Banned Amid Pandemic - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

New Mexico will continue banning direct public access to the Statehouse in favor of remote internet video access as legislators gather this week to rewrite the state budget. 

A divided Supreme Court rejected a petition Tuesday from nearly two dozen rank-and-file lawmakers to keep the doors of the Legislature open to the general public with a reduced limit on occupancy to guard against the coronavirus. 

A bipartisan panel of leading lawmakers and their legal advisers insisted that public attendance would make it nearly impossible to avoid close human contact that allows COVID-19 to spread.

Thomas Hnasko, an attorney for the Legislative Council Service, defended the plan to close the Capitol to the public and provide remote access instead, arguing that interactive video feeds of committee hearings and floor sessions would ensure the Legislature doesn't operate in secret. 

Attorney Blair Dunn, representing 22 dissident legislators, said that public participation in a legislative session is about more than listening to committee hearings and floor debates and involves conversations in the corridors and offices of the Statehouse. 

Police Tactics To Be Reviewed Following Albuquerque Protest – KUNM News, Associated Press

Police in Albuquerque were criticized Tuesday for not stepping in sooner as violence broke out, leaving one man hospitalized with gunshot wounds, after a group of armed militia antagonized people who wanted to take down a bronze statue of Spanish colonizer Juan de Oñate.

Police units that had been monitoring the protest moved in after the shooting and used tear gas and rubber bullets as they took the suspect into custody and aided the man who was shot. But some witnesses say things started to escalate long before the shooting.

Mayor Tim Keller said during a news conference Tuesday the investigation was being turned over to New Mexico State Police and the tactics used by police would be reviewed independently.

31-year-old former Albuquerque City Council candidate Steven Ray Baca was charged with a third-degree felony after shooting a man Monday night as protesters tried to tear down the monument. The victim, Scott Williams, suffered multiple gunshots to the torso, and is hospitalized in critical condition and expected to survive, his parents say. 

The mayor also announced that the Oñate statue was removed Tuesday afternoon and placed into temporary storage given the city's concerns over public safety.

Oñate statues and other references to the Spanish conquistador have been sources of criticism for decades.

New Mexico May Require Independent Probes Of Police Violence - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

Leading Republican legislators in New Mexico say they won't stand in the way of initiatives to require police body cameras and prohibit chokeholds.

Republican House minority leader Jim Townsend and GOP House whip Rod Montoya said Monday that most public safety protocol in New Mexico agencies already prohibit chokeholds and voiced qualified support for mandatory police body cameras.

Montoya said his only hesitation regarding mandatory body cameras might be in mandating new spending by cash-strapped state and local government. Townsend had no reservations.

Additional proposed policing reforms would steer investigations of deadly police enforcement actions away from reluctant local prosecutors and toward specially appointed prosecutors with greater independence.

Under the proposal, the governor and the state attorney general would be notified within 24 hours of all police actions resulting in significant injuries or death.

New Mexico Courts Set Deadline For Ending Cases Before Trial - Associated Press

A new order issued in response to the continuing coronavirus outbreak requires that criminal plea agreements and civil settlements be filed in New Mexico's state court system at least five days before trials are scheduled to start. 

An order by Supreme Court Chief Justice Judith Nakamura says the deadline will help protect the health and safety of prospective jurors and others who otherwise would gather in courthouses in anticipation of a trial starting. 

The order comes as the court system resumes holding trials and says the five-day requirement takes effect July 1. 

Meanwhile Tuesday, state health officials announced 88 new cases of COVID-19 and seven more deaths. 

New Mexico now has 9,933 confirmed cases, and the death toll stands at 447.

Navajo Resumes Weekend Lockdowns As Arizona Virus Cases Rise - Associated Press 

The Navajo Nation is planning more weekend lockdowns because of coronavirus cases that are increasing off the reservation, most notably in Arizona. 

Tribal President Jonathan Nez made the announcement Tuesday in a virtual town hall. 

He cited Arizona, which hit an alarmingly high new daily number of cases, in urging people to stay home. 

He says a second surge on the reservation would put enormous pressure on its health care system and workers. 

Residents of the Navajo Nation are still under daily nighttime curfews. 

Businesses will be closed during the weekend lockdown that starts at sundown Friday and ends at sunrise Monday. Tribal police have been citing people for violating the lockdowns.

Late Tuesday, the tribe reported 39 new cases of COVID-19, and eight more deaths. The total number of cases reported was 6,672 with 319 deaths. Health officials said nearly half of those who tested positive have recovered. 


Governor Urges Consideration Of Bans On Fireworks Sales - Associated Press

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is urging cities and counties across the state to consider banning retail sales of fireworks. 

An order signed Monday by Lujan Grisham cites drought conditions present in much of the state and says New Mexico municipalities and counties "must do their part to reduce the fire danger." 

The order also cites fire restrictions put in place by public land management agencies such as the state forester, the National Park Service and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. 

According to the governor's order, it doesn't affect municipal July Fourth fireworks displays.