District attorney defends decision in obelisk cases

·5 min read

May 24—District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies on Monday defended her decision to divert nearly all the defendants charged in the destruction of the Plaza obelisk into a pre-prosecution probation program, calling the crime "a political problem that got forced upon the criminal justice system."

Carmack-Altwies, in her first year as district attorney for a three-county area that includes Santa Fe, said the defendants, if convicted at trial, would not have faced serious punitive consequences, as their main crime was criminal damage to property, a fourth-degree felony.

In addition, the defendants have no previous criminal history and were first-time offenders, the district attorney said, adding the chance was "slim to none" any would face jail time for a low-level crime and "at best" would see 18 months of supervised probation if convicted.

"I wanted more than that," she said Monday in an interview with The New Mexican editorial board.

Carmack-Altwies emphasized the charges against defendants Dylan Wrobel, Dawn Furlong, Lily Schweitzer, Ryan Witt, Melissa Rose, Lauren Straily and Zachary Young have been stayed, not dismissed, and their time in the probation program would last between six months and two years, including 40 hours of community service. All will have to write a letter admitting their role in the toppling of the 152-year-old landmark.

One defendant, Stephen Fox, is not part of the agreement.

In addition, Carmack-Altwies said the defendants' participation in a restorative justice program would allow "harmed parties" — community members affected by the obelisk's destruction — to address with the defendants "what the resolution should actually be" — including restitution or any other community service projects that might be appropriate.

The restorative justice approach, not a well-known concept outside criminal justice circles, has sparked debate in the community, but Carmack-Altwies vigorously endorsed the concept in this case.

"It's supposed to bring both sides together and get everyone to come to a resolution or conclusion about what they should do as part of their punishment. And it is a punishment," she said. "It's not punitive, necessarily, in that it's not jail. But it is a punishment — they have to participate in this. And if they drop out and they don't do it, then we lift the stay and prosecution keeps going."

Carmack-Altwies said that while it will be difficult to identify the specific victims in the toppling of the obelisk on Oct. 12, 2020, anyone is welcome to present their grievances to the program's mediator, Debra Oliver.

The obelisk, long a lightning rod for controversy among Native American activists and their allies, was felled on Indigenous Peoples Day by a group of protesters with chains and straps during a year marked by contentious conversations about the role and accuracy of public art and monuments in Santa Fe. The suspects in the case were arrested in the months after the monument came down.

Since becoming district attorney, Carmack-Altwies said defense attorneys presented ideas about potential resolutions in three meetings before the announcement.

"I came away from it thinking this was best way to extract the most payback, if you will, to the community," she said. "Otherwise, if they were put on probation, they weren't going to have to do anything except sit in their houses and not get in trouble for maybe six months. And I really felt like this was really a political issue — that there needed to be a response that wasn't just sort of, the sledgehammer of justice, which is, you can go to jail, the end. Because we weren't going to get that, anyway."

Some in the community have leveled withering criticism against the district attorney's decision. Former City Councilor Ron Trujillo called it a "crock of crap" in an interview with The New Mexican last week. Others tied the move to the Mayor's Office, though Mayor Alan Webber in an interview Monday said he played no role in developing the plea deal.

Carmack-Altwies said the decision is based on what she promised in her campaign for the First Judicial District Attorney's Office last year — to reduce mass incarceration and expand diversionary programs. The obelisk case, though high-profile and emotionally charged, should be no exception, she added.

"If I start treating this case differently, then what's to say that the next thing that comes along that's high-profile, do I treat that differently? And then, where's the justice?" she said. "I either have to treat these people exactly the way that I said I was, or I ran on nothing."

This pre-prosecution diversion may not be used in every case of vandalism or property crime as it's expensive and time-consuming, she said, but was something she felt would work in the obelisk case.

"We're trying to thread that needle of helping to provide political and community healing while also making sure that those defendants face a punishment," she said. "... It's not punitive, but to face the understanding of what they did and and pay back the community in some way."

Whether the defendants needs to show remorse for their actions is yet to be determined. In their required written admission of participating in the destruction of the obelisk to the District Attorney's Office, Carmack-Altwies said a show of remorse is not required, but may be in the remediation process.

"The hope is that there will be a remorse, if not for what they did, then at least how they did it," she said.

Carmack-Altwies said she tried to "thread that needle of helping to provide political and community healing" while making certain defendants faced some kind of punishment and acknowledged what they did.

"Is it gonna make everyone happy? Are we gonna get paid back? Well, no," she said. "But it wasn't gonna happen on the trial path, either. And so, this was the scalpel that we were trying to use to create ... to try to undo some of the harm."

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