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Charles Maestas

Other New Mexico Cases
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In November 2002, 39-year-old Charles Maestas, a municipal judge in Espanola, New Mexico, was indicted by a Rio Arriba County grand jury on charges of forcing three women who appeared before him to engage in sex in return for leniency.

The indictment charged 14 counts of engaging in “official acts prohibited,” a state bribery statute and 14 counts of sexual penetration during the commission of a felony. He also was charged with stalking a fourth woman who refused to engage in sex.

Maestas went to trial in Rio Arriba County District Court in May 2003. By that time the four women had filed federal civil rights lawsuits against Maestas, who had been suspended from his judicial duties.

Three of the women, including 33-year-old Suzette Salazar, testified that he arranged for them—as part of their sentences after being convicted of misdemeanor charges such as drug possession—to clean his judicial chambers. There, he coerced them to engage in oral sex in his judicial chambers and later on, in his truck and in his home, in return for early termination of their sentences, they testified. The fourth woman said that she resisted Maestas’s advances, but that he persisted in attempting to force her to engage in sexual activity.

The prosecution presented an audiotape surreptitiously made by Salazar of her engaging in oral sex with Maestas in his home in March 2002. Maestas contended his sex with Salazar was consensual and not related to her cases in his courtroom. The defense noted that nowhere on the tape was there any comments that the sex was coerced or related to jail time.

Maestas’s defense attorney argued that the women had concocted the accounts because they intended to file their lawsuits and then win money from the judge and Rio Arriba County.

One of the woman, Mary Martinez, was confronted with a statement she made to a state police officer that she was “going to (expletive) Charles Maestas over to see what she could get out of the city (of Espanola) in her civil lawsuit.” She denied making the statement.

Immediately after she testified, she was arrested because that morning, she had failed a urine test that was required as part of a probation sentence for drug use.

On June 19, 2003, Maestas was convicted of five counts of rape and five counts of bribery based on the testimony of Salazar. The jury acquitted him of the remaining 18 counts of rape, bribery and stalking relating to the other three women. He was sentenced to three years in prison.

Weeks later, six of the jurors reported that they never intended to convict Maestas of rape—only the bribery charges—and that they were confused by the verdict forms. A defense motion to set aside the convictions based on the juror claims was denied and the convictions were upheld by the New Mexico Court of Appeals in 2005.

Maestas was released from prison on parole in February 2006. In December 2006, the New Mexico Supreme Court reversed his convictions and ordered a new trial. During the appeal, the prosecution pointed out that Maestas had been erroneously prosecuted under a state anti-bribery statute that expressly excluded judges. Because the convictions on those counts were used to support the charges of committing a sexual act in the commission of a felony, the court reversed the sexual penetration convictions as well.

Maestas was indicted again in March 2007 in five charges of rape and five counts of receiving a bribe as a public official. He went to trial a second time in June 2007.

During this trial, a different defense attorney, Tony Scarborough, discovered that Salazar had admitted to an investigator prior to the first trial that she had consensual sex with Maestas years before she ever appeared in his courtroom. That evidence, combined with statements she had made to others that “we got him” after Maestas was originally indicted, persuaded the jury to acquit Maestas on July 27, 2007 on all of the rape charges and four of the five bribery charges. The jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict on the fifth bribery count—voting 11-to-1 to acquit—and a mistrial was declared on that count.

On September 5, 2007, the prosecution dismissed the remaining bribery count.

Maestas sued the defense lawyers from his first trial for failing to realize that he had been charged under the wrong statute. The lawsuit was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

Ultimately, the city of Espanola agreed to pay $890,00 to settle lawsuits brought by 10 women against Maestas and jail guards alleging they were sexually assaulted while in custody.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 8/25/2016
State:New Mexico
County:Rio Arriba
Most Serious Crime:Sexual Assault
Additional Convictions:Bribery
Reported Crime Date:2002
Convicted:2003
Exonerated:2007
Sentence:3 years
Race:Hispanic
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:39
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No