District Attorney Mary Carmack- Altwies is nothing if not bold.
She had to know that placing defendants in the Plaza obelisk case into pretrial deferred prosecution would anger many — including potential voters should she run for reelection.
To further anger those who want the accused strung up, or at least, publicly shamed, Carmack-Altwiess decided to use restorative justice as part of the process.
Cue the outrage. To all who witnessed an unruly mob take down the obelisk on Indigenous Peoples Day last year, the DA’s decision to pursue an alternative sort of prosecution added insult to toppled granite.
Seven of the eight defendants in the case, instead of having the proverbial book thrown at them, instead will have an opportunity to meet with those they harmed, apologize and perform some 40 hours of community service. They will pay for the undertaking. An eighth defendant, so far, is not participating in what could be a drawn-out affair, stretching out as long as two years.
For all the people who decry mob decisions, for everyone who loved the Plaza with its obelisk, for those still angry police did not stop the destruction and for all who see the takedown as usurping the democratic process, her decision is wrong.
They wanted the book thrown at the defendants, no matter that Carmack-Altwies’ charging options — and chances of the defendants going to jail — were slim, if that.
New Mexico’s destruction of public property over $1,000 is a fourth-degree felony. In essence, a relatively minor crime.
Its penalties, for first-time offenders without a criminal record, likely would not have resulted in a jail sentence. That’s if they were convicted, no sure thing. Eight separate trials would cost tens of thousands of dollars and staff time, resources that can now be redirected.
Still, people are angry.
The obelisk is dedicated to soldiers who died in battle, both in fighting Indian wars of the 19th century and to Union soldiers who fought the Confederates in New Mexico.
On one side of what admittedly was an unattractive hunk of granite was a plaque dedicated to those who died “in the various battles with savage Indians.” The word “savage” was obliterated in 1974 by an anonymous man, and the obelisk — despite several attempts to have it moved — remained. It offended many, and as last year’s racial reckoning took place across the United States, cries grew to have it removed.
Top elected officials, including the governor, agreed the monument needed to go. Mayor Alan Webber earlier that year supported its removal, at least temporarily, while its fate could be debated. A dark-of-night attempt to do so failed; the piece was too heavy.
So it remained, until a crowd did the work unilaterally, without democratic discussion and consensus. Those actions have left a deep wound.
Many angry about the memorial believe using restorative justice is just another knife in that wound.
We urge the community to give this process a chance.
Carmack-Altwies has introduced a novel concept, but one that if done correctly, will demand much more of the defendants than a short trial and a probated sentence. The people who destroyed the obelisk have to hear from those they hurt — residents are being asked to sign up so they can explain what this memorial meant to them. Given the public at large is hurting, finding the specific participants for the group to be meaningful is not an easy task.
Injured parties could include city workers who care for the Plaza or who had to clean up the mess. Descendants of soldiers who fought in the battles against the Confederate — there are many in town — are another potentially injured group. Local Pueblo people, who have been working with the city to expand how we discuss our history, had their process upended. They might have something to say, as will local Hispanos who like their Plaza and are tired of people changing it without consulting longtime residents.
But Carmack-Altwies, in deciding to go the restorative justice route, is hardly giving the defendants a free pass. She is seeking to make them confront their actions, perform community service and eventually, make some sort of restitution. Is her solution perfect? No.
But can it move the community forward? Yes.