New Mexico police shooting ruled unjustified, charges weighed

By Joseph J. Kolb

By Joseph J. Kolb

ALBUQUERQUE N.M. (Reuters) - A special prosecutor may soon be appointed to determine whether to press criminal charges against two New Mexico police officers after a grand jury ruled that a 2013 shooting of a motorist in Santa Fe was unjustified, the District Attorney said on Friday.

The grand jury determined on Thursday that the shooting was not justified but was not asked to rule on whether prosecution was warranted.

Santa Fe District Attorney Angela Pacheco said she was now in a position to appoint a special prosecutor from another district to consider whether or not to file charges against the officers, Stephen Fonte and John DeBaca.

"The only purpose of this grand jury was to determine if the shooting was justified not to file charges," Pacheco said. "It was a secret proceeding so I do not know why they determined the shooting to be unjustified."

The move comes as police in nearby Albuquerque are working with the U.S. Department of Justice to implement reforms to fix a pattern of excessive use of force uncovered by an 18-month federal probe, including several fatal police shootings.

In Santa Fe, Pacheco said the two police officers are accused of having shot Roberto Mendez, 25, in the face after police said he tried to run them down in a convenience store parking lot in August 2013 with a stolen vehicle.

The Albuquerque Journal newspaper reported that the vehicle Mendez was driving had been full of passengers, including a young child, at the time of the shooting.

The paper reported that video showed Mendez had backed up in an apparent attempt to flee, hitting a police cruiser and prompting the two officers to jump out of the way, and that the officers appeared to fire on the vehicle as it pulled away.

Pacheco said Mendez, who survived the shooting, had been among those who testified to the grand jury. She declined to disclose which officer is thought to have actually shot Mendez.

Matt Ross, spokesman, for the City of Santa Fe, said the city has placed both officers on alternate duty pending a determination by the district attorney on whether criminal charges will be filed.

Ross declined further comment, and could not immediately say whether the officers had secured legal representation or identify who was representing them.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston)