District Attorney Matt Chandler surveyed the audience of about 350 at the Clovis Civic Center Tuesday morning.
“This is our biggest crowd,” Chandler said of the seventh annual area breakfast to mark National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, “and I’m glad everybody came to hear me speak.”
Chandler and the audience laughed, knowing full well most were there for Gov. Susana Martinez, the featured speaker.
Martinez, elected to the governor’s office after heading the Third Judicial District in Dona Ana County, said she started as a prosecutor believing she could handle everything.
But she was humbled quickly on an early assignment, when she was handed a case of three young girls, all of whom had been molested by various family members. She didn’t have children, and found herself overwhelmed when trying to find the words to put the girls at ease.
Throughout her career, Martinez said, she’s realized every situation is different, and, “I know how you feel,” or, “I understand” rarely helps.
“There is no closure; you just turn the page,” Martinez said of such crimes. “It’s probably the worst thing we could say. We don’t understand; we try.”
Victims have ranged from 17 days old, Martinez said, to senior citizens. She spoke of Baby Brianna, one of seven children killed by family members over three-and-a-half years in her district. The 2002 death was so gruesome, Martinez said, law enforcement wept during the trial when they heard about broken bones and bite marks to a 5-month-old girl.
Martinez imagined legislation to increase penalties for such offenders would be easy, and thought she’d just have to show autopsy photos. The bill never got out of the Senate, and it was three years before it became law.
Chandler said part of the lobbying effort included busing residents to Santa Fe to keep track of the bill. He said Martinez keeps a picture of Brianna on her desk, and she said, “This is a reminder of what we do and why we do it.”
In many instances, Martinez said, good legislation is championed by those victimized by its absence. She noted New Mexico’s status as the first state to add “Katie’s Law,” which requires DNA samples to be taken from those arrested on violent felony charges.
The law happened after New Mexico State University student and Carlsbad native Katie Sepich was raped and killed in 2003. Sepich and her killer were not acquaintances, so the case went cold. But Sepich fought off her attacker, Martinez said, and there were DNA samples taken from her fingernails.
Four years later, Gabriel Adrian Avila was convicted of aggravated burglary and aggravated assault, and DNA taken matched the sample from Sepich’s fingernails.
The state Legislature passed, and Martinez signed, a stronger version of the law to allow collection during all felony arrests. She said that thanks to work by Sepich’s parents, 22 states have some form of “Katie’s Law” on the books, and that the law has helped solve 187 crimes in the state.
“We have to demand as a society victims of crime will never be left out,” Martinez said.