Murder charges against police put New Mexico DA in spotlight

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Posted: Jan 13, 2015 4:21 PM
Murder charges against police put New Mexico DA in spotlight

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — For most of her career, Kari Brandenburg has been a low-key district attorney in New Mexico's largest county.

But at a time when police shootings have elicited huge protests nationwide, the Albuquerque Democrat took a rare step — charging two police officers with murder. Now she's in the national spotlight, and she's simultaneously battling bribery allegations from the same police force.

"I'm going to let you guys speculate to that," Brandenburg told reporters when asked if the bribery claims were efforts to prevent her from seeking charges. "I am not going to be intimidated. As long as I have a breath in my body, I will do what I think is right for the people that I represent."

On Monday, Brandenburg announced she was seeking murder charges against Albuquerque SWAT team member Dominique Perez and former detective Keith Sandy for the shooting death of James Boyd, a 38-year-old homeless man.

Boyd, who authorities later said suffered from schizophrenia, was shot during a standoff in March in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains. Video of the shooting showed Boyd appearing to surrender before Perez and Sandy opened fire.

Attorneys for the officers say their clients did nothing wrong.

Brandenburg's move to seek charges marked a major shift from her previous decisions not go after Albuquerque officers linked to more than 40 police shootings since 2010. It also pointed to growing tensions between her office and the troubled Albuquerque Police Department, which suspects Brandenburg of reimbursing burglary victims to protect her son.

The district attorney said she had been working on the Boyd case before she heard of those allegations and her decision to seek charges was based on the facts.

"I think the motivation is pretty transparent," she said.

No charges have ever been filed against Brandenburg, and she denies any wrongdoing. The case has been sent to the New Mexico Attorney General's Office, and that office has refused to comment.

The situation is unfolding not long after Albuquerque signed an agreement with the U.S. Justice Department to overhaul its police force to address allegations of excessive force.

First elected in 2000 as the county's first female district attorney, the 60-year-old Brandenburg was born in Albuquerque and came to the office after spending most of her legal career as a defense attorney. Her father, Jim Brandenburg, held the same job from 1972 to 1976.

But while celebrating career successes, Brandenburg also endured personal tragedies — the deaths of two husbands and a 4-month-old adopted daughter. She is the mother of four adopted children, all grown, including 26-year-old Justin Koch, who has been implicated in theft cases and who police say was the one Brandenburg sought to help through bribery.

During her tenure as district attorney, Brandenburg has drawn praise for aggressively prosecuting a man charged with the 2006 killing of a deputy during a traffic stop. She and her prosecutors won a conviction against Michael Astorga for the slaying of deputy James McGrane. Astorga was sentenced to life in prison.

"She did an amazing job. I could always call her," said Darren White, a former Bernalillo County Sheriff and a Republican.

However, former attorneys who worked under Brandenburg said her staff was often overworked because she refused to be flexible on plea agreements and regularly ordered attorneys to take cases to trial regardless of the chances of success. Meanwhile, she declined to seek charges against officers, even when evidence was strong.

"She pursued cases against the average person with little to no evidence," said defense attorney Cynthia Armijo, who worked under Brandenburg from 2004 to 2006. "But this is the first time she's charging officers. I think it might be politically motivated."

Criminal defense attorney Grant Marek, who also worked in Brandenburg's office, said the office maintained strict policies, and attorneys often followed those practices "blindly" and "didn't use their discretion."

Specifically, he said, the office refused to consider reducing drunken-driving charges, which can affect defendants' future chances at jobs.

Still, Ralph Arellanes, president of the Albuquerque chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, said Brandenburg was able to win four terms with large margins because she's an effective campaigner.

"She's very personable and she's a very good communicator," said Arellanes, a critic of the police department. "People generally like her."

Arellanes said he's been disappointed with Brandenburg's refusal to charge officers until now.

"Hopefully, this is a change for her," he said.

Nancy Denker, owner of the Albuquerque printing company Focus Ink, said Brandenburg showed "tremendous courage" by filing charges against the officers in the Boyd shooting. Denker prints Brandenburg's campaign material and said she strongly supports her.

"She's not always perfect," Denker said. "But right now, I'm very proud of her. I hope her decision leads to a national conversation."

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Follow Russell Contreras at http://twitter.com/russcontreras .