By Chief Phil Smith, Roswell Police Department
Our criminal justice system is a multi-faceted machine involving law enforcement response and investigation, followed by prosecution in the court system, and culminating with a final judicial order that can lead to a defendant’s placement in the corrections system. All these parts must function efficiently and effectively in order for the system to work properly and meet the end goal of dispensing reasonable justice.
It is frustrating to the Roswell Police Department when its detectives, officers and technicians pour themselves into collecting evidence, finding witnesses, conducting interviews and applying various other investigatory techniques to build solid cases against defendants accused of significant crimes such as homicide only to watch as the District Attorney’s Office resolves some of these cases with plea agreements that seem to fall seriously short of doling out the needed justice.
A 2019 murder case recently ended with such a plea deal. Eleuterio Andres Juana was charged with first-degree murder and tampering with evidence following the RPD investigation of the New Year’s Eve shooting of Jaime Ramirez inside a home where the two men had been talking in the kitchen. District Attorney Dianna Luce and Juana’s defense attorney came up with a plea agreement, which was approved by District Judge Thomas Lilley, that puts the convicted murderer, who also happens to be in the United States illegally, in prison for possibly as little as just over five years. (Juana’s murder charge was reduced to second-degree and he was officially sentenced to the legal maximum of 15 years on the murder charge plus one year extra for use of a firearm in the crime, but 10 of those years were suspended, leaving six years. With “good behavior” in prison, he could be released after serving five years and about five weeks. He was also sentenced to three years for the tampering charge, but the plea agreement specified, and the judge approved, that the three years run concurrently, or at the same time, as Juana serves his murder sentence.)
Regardless of whether the murder charge ended up as first-degree or second-degree, the sentencing was not reasonable. Even with the second-degree murder conviction, when paired with the tampering charge, this murderer could have been put in prison for as much as 19 years. He got six, and could be out in less than that.
This is just the latest example of a prosecution practice about which RPD detectives have long expressed concern to the District Attorney’s Office. No reasonable explanation has been offered for why the criminals RPD arrests are later allowed to escape proper justice because of weak plea deals and lax sentencing.
Back in 2013, I presented to the City Council a report referring to the lack of consequence the criminal element in the City of Roswell faces. At that time, it would take an offender on average 11.5 arrests before he/she was incarcerated. Recently, I reviewed the dispositions here in the Fifth Judicial District Court for 2020 and found there were 230 trial/court events and within that number, from the four District Court judges, the following penalty assessments were handed down:
-- 37 were found guilty and served some jail/prison time (19 DWIs, 11 habitual, 7 misc., totaling 79.5 years)
-- 160 were found guilty and received suspended sentences (no actual jail/prison time) and suspended fines
-- 33 cases were dismissed
If this is the court’s idea of helping the community, the judges must be deaf to the plight of the community of Roswell. This is a community of 50,000 people and it produces almost 7,000 arrests annually, with eight to 12 homicides. The District Court’s sentencing decisions mean there is little consequence for committing crime in the City of Roswell. Offenders go through this court system with court-appointed attorneys, do not pay fines and are not incarcerated, so the end result is an abnormal and shocking recidivism rate and the creation of more victims in our community by the same offenders over and over again.
How can our police department ever have the appropriate manning for the amount of calls for service if the courts keep letting these offenders back into the community without even a fine? How can our police department achieve its goal of reducing the crime rate if police have to arrest each offender more than 10 times, take care of 10 victims, commit time and resources to 10 investigations, engage with 10 prosecuting attorneys and district judges, and work their way through two-year-long court proceedings for each criminal?
Let me be the first to agree that we cannot arrest our way out of problems. The philosophy of “lock ’em up and throw away the key” does not solve the underlying causes of crime – poverty, drug addiction, lack of education, mental health problems and failed social intervention. Yet, it is a reality that there are people who just cannot function in our society, so we must build jails and prisons to accommodate these people while also building schools to address some of the root causes of crime. There are some people who howl that when you imprison someone for a crime, they become wards of the state who become a burden on taxpayers. There must be a willingness on the public’s part to pay to build jails and prisons, as well as house and feed those you want behind bars. I say it is worth it to have a quality of life and remove those who do not contribute to quality of life and alternatively actively destroy a community’s quality of life.
Why are we funding a judicial system that fails to protect and preserve our civil rights and freedoms guaranteed under our constitution? This failure comes in the form of releasing criminals to re-offend in our communities. These unabated miscreants violate our community and our individual rights but are afforded, in excess, due process of law, the presumption of innocence, and the right to a jury trial.
This issue is about each entity in the criminal justice system serving our community well by holding criminals accountable. Soft punishment for serious crimes gives the criminals the green light to continue their deviant behavior by committing more crimes that harm other people. Homicides and other cases that RPD works hard to put together for prosecution in court must result in strong consequences in order to deter criminals from running amok in our community. Roswell residents deserve the best from its police, prosecutors and judges.