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Murder Trial Sheds Light on Effectiveness of GPS Monitoring

Testimony in a murder trial revealed that a now-convicted killer routinely violated court-ordered conditions of home arrest before he fatally shot a man in 2021, all while wearing a GPS monitor.

(TNS) — Testimony in a recent murder trial revealed that the now-convicted killer routinely violated court-ordered conditions of his home arrest in the weeks before he fatally shot a man in 2021, all while wearing a GPS monitor that tracked his movements with precision.

The April 2021 killing by a man who at the time was under supervision of the court ignited a long-simmering debate about the process for releasing criminal defendants while awaiting trial for violent crimes. It also raised questions about the effectiveness of the programs the court put in place to monitor those defendants.

A jury last month found Devin Munford, 21, guilty of first-degree murder for firing a shotgun through the door of an Albuquerque apartment, killing 22-year-old Devon Heyborne. Munford faces a maximum sentence of life plus 25 years at a sentencing hearing scheduled for Jan. 16.

At the time he killed Heyborne, Munford was awaiting trial for shooting a pistol from a car and was under the supervision of the 2nd Judicial District Court's Pretrial Services Division. Before he was released from jail on Jan. 4, 2021, a judge placed Munford on home arrest, ordered him to wear a GPS ankle monitor and prohibited him from possessing a firearm.

During his nearly four months on pretrial release, Munford violated all of those conditions.

New Mexico's top prosecutor said Munford's case "opens a window into the entire system of pretrial supervision."

Attorney General Raúl Torrez, whose office prosecuted Munford in October, contends that his case stemmed from an effort by policymakers and the courts to reduce jail populations in New Mexico by conditionally releasing inmates without ensuring the necessary resources to ensure public safety.

"I have always, frankly, wondered whether or not there were sufficient resources in terms of technology, and staff in particular, to manage a pretty substantial shift from a population that used to be in state custody in jails and have been put back into the community," Torrez said in a phone interview.

"It's my general impression that that system was and has still never been fully resourced," he said.

A top court administrator responded that Munford's case highlighted a problem with after-hours pretrial supervision that has since been corrected and now works well. The case prompted the Administrative Office of the Courts to establish an after-hours monitoring unit in 2021 to supervise defendants wearing GPS monitors.

"With the pretrial services in place, there are fewer people getting arrested for new crimes after implementation of pretrial services than before," said Artie Pepin, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts.

Pepin cited research performed by the University of New Mexico showing that only a small minority of defendants commit crimes while free from jail pending trial.

Constitutional amendment

New Mexico voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2016 that largely eliminated the former system of money bail bonds.

The change was intended to prevent low-level defendants from being kept in jail simply because they lacked money to post bail. It also authorized judges to order defendants to be held without bail pending trial if certain conditions were met.

But judges also have the authority to release criminal defendants with conditions such as those a judge ordered in Munford's case.

Munford was arrested in December 2020 on charges that included shooting from a motor vehicle. The 2nd Judicial District Attorney's Office, then led by Torrez, filed a motion to keep him locked up. But a district judge denied the motion while even noting that prosecutors had shown Munford "may be a danger to the public." But they failed to show that there were no conditions of release that could reasonably ensure public safety," the judge ruled.

Munford was released on home arrest on Jan. 4, 2021, but was required to wear a GPS monitor tracked by the court's Pretrial Services Division, court records show. He also was prohibited from possessing a firearm.

Heyborne's killing

On April 23, 2021, Munford drove to Heyborne's apartment and fired a fatal shotgun blast through the apartment door. Heyborne died of wounds to his chest and wrist at his apartment in the 800 block of Locust NE, just southwest of the Big I.

Marshall Dixon, a supervisor in the court's Pretrial Services Division who testified at the trial, said Munford left his home 113 times in the six weeks prior to Heyborne's killing in violation of his conditions of release.

Each of those violations generated an "alert" that could have been reported to the court, possibly resulting in a warrant for Munford's arrest for willful violation of his conditions of release, Dixon told jurors during Mumford's recent trial.

However, "nothing was reported to the court," Dixon told jurors. "Based on my review, that (pretrial services) officer wasn't responding to alerts and events the way she was trained and directed to respond, based on the guidelines of her training."

Dixon noted that the period of Munford's release corresponded with the COVID-19 pandemic when pretrial services officers were working from home. Pretrial services officers were sharing a limited number of cellphones to remotely track defendants, he said.

Less than five hours before Heyborne's killing, Munford had visited pretrial services to replace the battery in his GPS ankle monitor, reactivating the device that allowed officials to track his movements that day. Prosecutors were able to use that GPS data to show jurors Munford's movements minute by minute as he drove to and from Heyborne's apartment.

Legislative efforts

During his tenure as Bernalillo County's district attorney, Torrez led several unsuccessful legislative efforts to change New Mexico's pretrial detention system by making it easier for judges to hold certain defendants behind bars while awaiting trial.

Most recently, lawmakers defeated a bill in 2022 backed by Torrez and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham that would have created a "rebuttable presumption" that defendants charged with murder, child abuse and certain other violent crimes should remain in custody pending trial unless they convince a judge that they do not pose a danger to the community.

Pretrial services officials have neither the training nor the authority to decide what violation of conditions of release should trigger a referral to a judge, said Torrez, who took office as attorney general in January.

"My sense is that (pretrial services officials) shouldn't be in the business of determining which violations are sufficient, or not sufficient, to justify revoking somebody's conditions," Torrez said. "It begs the fundamental question: 'How are you supposed to make sure that the community is safe?'"

Sam Bregman, who succeeded Torrez in January as Bernalillo County's district attorney, said GPS monitors have clear limitations that cause concern among prosecutors.

"Ankle monitoring may be good to know where the person is, as long as they're wearing it," Bregman said. "But other than that, it does not prevent the individual from committing a crime."

Program changes

Because Heyborne was killed shortly after 5 p.m. on a Friday, the case called attention to an absence of GPS monitoring after-hours and on weekends.

Partly in response to the Munford case, the Administrative Office of the Courts rolled out a 24/7 alert system intended to notify law enforcement if someone wearing a GPS ankle monitor violated the conditions of pretrial release.

That system, which took effect in October 2021, created an Electronic Monitoring and Supervision, or EMS, unit to provide after-hours supervision for defendants on GPS monitors on nights, weekends and holidays. The program so far has been implemented in eight counties, including Bernalillo, Sandoval, Doña Ana, and Santa Fe counties.

In Bernalillo County, the 2nd Judicial District Court's Pretrial Services Division continues to supervise defendants on GPS monitors during regular business hours.

Heyborne's mother, Angelica Alire, filed a lawsuit in May against the 2nd Judicial District Court and Bernalillo County alleging that court personnel failed to properly supervise Munford, resulting in her son's death. Defendants in that civil case have denied the allegations in court filings.

Second Judicial District Court officials have declined to answer questions about the Munford case because it relates to pending litigation, court spokesperson Ludella Awad said in a written response.

The number of defendants wearing GPS monitors in Bernalillo County varies from 100 to 115, Awad said. Pretrial services has 21 staff members who supervise GPS monitors, perform background investigations and other functions, she said.

The Munford case revealed a gap in after-hours GPS monitoring, and the Administrative Office of the Courts program "filled that gap," said Pepin, the AOC director.

The EMS unit, which has a budget of $1.3 million this year, has 12 staff members and is expected to expand to 16 staff members in the coming year, according to AOC data. The unit has monitored, on average, 207 defendants a month during the past year.

Since its creation in October 2021, the unit has requested 214 arrest warrants, of which all but three were approved by a judge. Of those approved, 129 warrants were served by law enforcement in 29 days, on average.

From the time of an alert, the EMS unit takes two hours and 21 minutes, on average, to investigate the alert and seek a warrant if needed, according to AOC data.

Of the 214 warrants sought, 64% were issued because of a dead battery, and 23% were issued because the GPS monitor was cut off.

Pepin said the current system of pretrial release and electronic monitoring is imperfect but superior to the former system of money bonds.

"We know that before the implementation of pretrial services, nothing was done to work with people who are on release to make sure they stay compliant with all their conditions," he said. "I do know they'

© 2023 the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.