ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In just weeks, William Wilson would go from being fresh out of a county lockup in northwestern New Mexico to dead, the 26-year-old felon having been shot by authorities after he opened fire on a state police officer, striking the officer’s badge and sending shrapnel flying.
Authorities on Monday were still investigating Sunday’s fatal traffic stop as law enforcement officials, prosecutors and defense lawyers debated whether the state’s new rules for determining whether defendants can be released while awaiting trial are working as intended.
The comprehensive procedures were laid out by the state Supreme Court in June and already are the target of a lawsuit by the bail bond industry and a handful of lawmakers.
The changes were the result of a constitutional amendment approved by voters in November. The aim was to establish provisions to ensure clearly dangerous defendants remain incarcerated as they await trial, while allowing for the release of nonviolent suspects who might otherwise languish in jail only because they cannot afford bail.
San Juan County Sheriff Ken Christesen said Wilson had an extensive criminal history.
State police say Wilson was released from prison in May to the custody of the county jail due to a pending case involving aggravated burglary, larceny and firearm charges. Court records show he was released from the jail in early August after being fitted with an ankle monitor.
Christesen expressed frustration with the reforms during a news conference Sunday afternoon.
“They’re putting dangerous criminals back on the streets,” he said, as a mug shot of Wilson in a jail jumpsuit was displayed in the background. “As citizens of this state and this county and the city of Farmington, they should be outraged that this happened.”
The sheriff described the state’s pretrial detention procedures as a “catch-and-release” system.
“Our judges, our lawmakers, and all the law enforcement and every citizen in this state needs to stand up and stop this nonsense of catch and release,” he said.
Margaret Strickland, a Las Cruces attorney and president of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said Monday that while the reforms are still fresh, similar efforts in other states have worked well.
New Mexico’s reforms are modeled after recent changes in New Jersey and an older legal overhaul in Washington, D.C. To deny bail, courts have to establish “clear and convincing evidence” that criminal suspects represent a danger and should stay locked up until trial.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys already are clashing over how to apply that principle. Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torrez in April complained of burdensome evidentiary requirements before the New Mexico Supreme Court, after his motions to deny bail were rejected by other courts for suspects linked to a series of armed robberies and the shooting of a pregnant woman.
San Juan County Chief Deputy District Attorney Dustin O’Brien said it was previously up to judges to make the decision whether to use a high bond to keep a defendant in custody. Now, prosecutors have to determine whether they have enough evidence to argue during an expedited process that someone should be held due to safety concerns.
In Wilson’s case, with the exception of battery charges filed years ago, his most recent cases involved property and drug crimes, O’Brien said.
With the added layer of evidence required, O’Brien said smaller counties that lack resources could end up having a more difficult time pursuing no-hold bonds for violent offenders.
Sunday’s traffic stop stemmed from a theft investigation. The sheriff said the vehicle that was stopped was suspected in a string of burglaries.
State Police Chief Pete Kassetas said his officer had cuffed Wilson’s hands in the front and the suspect soon pulled out a revolver and fired at the officer. The round lodged inside the officer’s badge and shrapnel hit the side of his face.
Things happened quickly, Kassetas said, leaving the officers only seconds to react.
Authorities have yet to release the names of the officer and deputy involved. They identified the two others with Wilson as Terry Joplin, 42, and Kaytlynn Arnold, 21. Both were arrested on outstanding warrants.