Editorial: Judge wrong, but so are those threatening her

Posted 8/16/18

Judges rule on points of law, not public sentiment or poorly proven claims by investigators or prosecutors. Because of that, in the United States we have rule of law, not rule by …

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Editorial: Judge wrong, but so are those threatening her

Posted

Judges rule on points of law, not public sentiment or poorly proven claims by investigators or prosecutors. Because of that, in the United States we have rule of law, not rule by mob.

That’s why the decision by Taos District Judge Sarah Backus to allow the release of child abuse suspects in a well-publicized case can be considered courageous even if we think she is wrong. Backus, in deciding that the five suspects at a compound near Amalia could be released, was focusing on the case presented by state prosecutors. 

In her mind, prosecutors did not show that the suspects were a danger to the community or a flight risk. Both factors have to be taken into consideration when deciding whether suspects go free under new rules on pretrial detention.

The rules are in place after voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2016, with the new guidelines then established by the New Mexico Supreme Court. Defendants, under the New Mexico Constitution, have the right to be released pretrial except in limited instances.

The decision by Backus on Monday has caused widespread criticism and outrage. People are furious.

Everyone, from Gov. Susana Martinez, blaming the Supreme Court and its new rules on pretrial release; to the state GOP, going after those “Democrat” judges; to a host of other people, has weighed in. Several people have threatened Backus and the court staff with physical harm by phone, email and on social media.

In Taos, the community most immediately affected by her decision, those threats led to an evacuation of the county offices and a lockdown of the county courthouse Tuesday.

The firestorm was prompted in large part by testimony at the detention hearing that the suspects reportedly were training children at the compound to conduct school shootings. This case, after all, is not only about alleged child abuse, with five adults and 11 children living in squalor, but could have ties to Islamic extremism. The five adults are Muslim and the compound was being watched by the FBI. 

But, they had not been charged with anything related to the firearms or how they might have intended to use them. And new insights from an in-law who knew all five well indicate something else might have been going on, something driven by fear or mental instability, not religious extremism.

Much of the vitriol about the judge’s decision misses the point that the chief suspect in the case — Siraj Ibn Wahhaj — is not leaving jail. He remains in custody because of a warrant out of Georgia, accusing him of abducting his young son. A child’s body found at the compound has yet to be officially identified, but if it is that of the missing boy, the adults could face more serious charges. 

The undeniable existence of a child’s remains and the squalid conditions that investigators found the families living in should have been the focus of the prosecution during the pretrial detention hearing. Backus even asked at one point why she wasn’t hearing more evidence about child abuse; if she had, she might have made a different decision. 

Still, in our view, the new bail rules did not require Backus to let the suspects go. As judge, she had to determine flight risk. Considering that the suspects are from Georgia and have few ties to Taos or Northern New Mexico, it is possible they won’t stick around.

A reasonable person might consider the adults a flight risk.

Now, whether these suspects are a “danger” to the community is a more difficult case to make. They certainly appear to have been a danger to the children around them.

It seems to us that given the questions about the suspects and the arsenal of weapons found at their compound, a convincing case could be made to keep them behind bars until more is known. Prosecutors can appeal Backus’ decision and we hope they do. It is their job, after all, to show evidence of both flight risk and danger to the public.

What a judge is not supposed to do is consider theories presented without substantial evidence. Her job is to hear the facts, apply the law and rule.

The Administrative Office of the Courts issued this statement in response to the outrage over the decision by Backus: “A judge’s responsibility is to follow the law — not popular sentiment that may develop from incomplete or misleading information.”

We disagree with her reasoning in this case, but Sarah Backus abided by her oath as directed by the New Mexico Constitution.

To those who have threatened violence against her and court staff, we urge you to stop. Advocating violence against them makes you culpable of the same kind of violent intent that you say you fear from the defendants. 

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