The start of a new year also marks a changeover in the 13th Judicial District Attorney’s Office.
After serving 20 years — five terms — in office, Lemuel Martinez, a Democrat, no longer holds the title of district attorney. His decision not to run for a sixth term, essentially retiring from public office, led to his deputy district attorney, Barbara Romo, also a Democrat, winning the seat. She took office on Jan. 1.
Martinez’s decision to retire from a position he held for two decades was simple — 20 years is long enough.
“Twenty years in office is long enough to complete the things I wanted to do,” Martinez said. “I think it’s time for another person to take over the DA’s office.”
Martinez never thought he’d be DA for this long, saying he didn’t know how long he’d serve. All he knew is he wanted to make a difference.
Martinez won the office when he defeated Republican Pete Ross in a close race in 2000. He beat Ross again in 2004, ran unopposed in 2008, defeated Kenneth Fladager in 2012 and ran unopposed again in 2016.
“I worked hard, fought hard and did a lot of things to get elected,” Martinez said of his first election. “The next election we beat (Ross) by 4,500 votes, and that gave me the confidence that the community had confidence in me.”
When he first decided to retire, Martinez had plans to see the world and travel across the country — see places he’d never been. But when the COVID-19 pandemic occurred, his plans changed quickly.
“I’m kind of canceling that and going to do yard work and chores around the house,” said Martinez, who moved from Grants to Corrales two years ago. “Hopefully, one day, I’ll be able to travel.”
In the 20 years he’s served as district attorney for the 13th Judicial District, which is comprised of Valencia, Cibola and Sandoval counties, he’s had his share of traveling.
“I was lucky in that I’m not married or don’t have kids, so I don’t have those entanglements,” he said. “I felt it was important to be in each office at least once a week. I traveled and put a lot of miles on the car.”
As he looks back on his career, Martinez said being DA was, “the greatest and most difficult job I’ve ever had and I loved it.”
There have been thousands of cases that have been prosecuted by the DA’s office in the past 20 years, and some have been more arduous than others. In Valencia County specifically, Martinez said the Brandon Villalobos — the boy who was found guilty of the 2014 murder of his friend, 12-year-old Alex Madrid — was challenging.
Another case Martinez will never forget is that of Benjamin Hilburn, who, when he was 11 years old, shot and killed his father, Byron, at their Belen home in August 2009. Martinez ultimately dismissed the first-degree murder charge against the boy.
“This was the hardest decision I’ve had to make during my time as district attorney,” Martinez said at the time.
One of the most memorable cases he remembers was that of “The Terrible 10,” which was prosecuted by his then deputy district attorney, Ron Lopez. Ten men were charged and ultimately pleaded guilty to charges stemming from a fatal gang-related shooting in El Cerro Mission in July 2001.
Every case is difficult but there are silver linings when a conviction is secured, Martinez said.
“Some of the best memories are when we do get a conviction and the victims … get justice,” he said.
“We’re really the only source of justice these people have.
You feel really good when you get justice but also when a victim writes you a note or sends a card thanking us, and I’ll have those things for the rest of my life.”
In his time as the 13th Judicial district attorney, Martinez felt it was not only his job to prosecute criminals, but to educate and partner with law enforcement and the community. His office implemented several conferences on child sex abuse in Sandoval County and drug and gangs in Valencia County.
“I ran on the platform of ‘safe communities for our families, safe schools for our children, protecting our elderly and training for law enforcement and attorneys,’” he said. “I taught school for 10 years, so children were definitely a priority. Training has always been important.”
After 20 years as a prosecutor, Martinez said he can say that the gang problem in Valencia County has subsided, saying his office was able send gang members to prison.
“I think the district attorney, along with law enforcement, put these people away and caused them to pick new areas to do their crimes,” he said. “I think the DA’s office has had an impact on crime.”
With Romo now in his seat, Martinez said he has full confidence and faith in her and her abilities. When asked what advice he’s given to her, he said she needs to focus on the administration of the office.
“If you want to do the best you can in the office, don’t delegate your administrative responsibilities to someone else,” the former DA said. “You have to do it yourself. You need to take care of the personnel issues, take care of the budget, take care of the Legislature.”
Martinez said he told Romo that it’s OK to do a high-profile trial a year, but her focus has to be on the office, which has 85 employees in three different counties.
Now that he’s retired, Martinez will keep his license to practice law and might be convinced to prosecute in area tribal courts, or even as a special prosecutor if needed.
In the end, Martinez said he has a lot of people to thank for his success, but is most thankful to the voters for their confidence in him over the years.
“I want to thank the voters of the 13th Judicial District for their trust in me, and who continued to vote for me,” Martinez said. “I hope they can see a change in the safety in their communities.”
Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.