By Joline Gutierrez Krueger

Albuquerque Tribune

April 2, 2004


Grand jury indictments in the deaths of Melanie McCracken in 1995 and Stephanie Houston in 2000 didn't come easy, but they eventually did come.


The women's families say shoddy investigations by law enforcement and other agencies made the system resist, and they want the system itself and its minions to come under grand jury scrutiny.


Today, Bill Houston, the father of Stephanie Houston, and Nancy Grice, the mother of Melanie McCracken, were expected to file a petition seeking the convening of a grand jury to investigate allegations that government employees and others paid by the public improperly investigated both cases.


The petition was expected to be filed this morning with the Valencia County bureau of elections in Los Lunas, which has to certify more than 800 signatures on the petition. To seek a grand jury investigation, 660 signatures are needed, said Albuquerque private detective Mike Corwin, who has been involved in both cases.  Once the signatures are certified, the petition can be filed with the state District Court. The court can then convene a grand jury. That isn't likely to occur for a couple of months, Corwin said.


"The big step is getting the signatures verified," he said.


The families don't necessarily expect that any indictments will come because of the grand jury, Corwin said.  "The grand jury is an investigative body, not just a charging body," he said. "We're not here to say, 'Charge these people' but to compel testimony and provide documentation on just what happened in those investigations. If there was no wrongdoing, then there was no wrongdoing."


But Corwin and the families say they believe there was plenty of wrongdoing. Three boxes of evidence and hours of interviews gathered over the years should convince a grand jury, Corwin said.  "We had witnesses coming the next day and people who knew what happened to my daughter," Houston said. "But investigators never looked at any of that."


Both families say they believe their cases were given short shrift because they were deaths caused by domestic violence.  "The police said my daughter deserved what she got," Houston said. "They said she was flirting with a man and that made her boyfriend mad."


Both families also point to the involvement of the State Police in both cases as part of the reason for the botched investigations.  That's largely because of the involvement of retired State Police Lt. Mark McCracken, now charged with his wife's death and the lead investigator in the Stephanie Houston case.  The grand jury that last fall indicted Mark McCracken on first-degree murder and other charges had requested that a new grand jury be empaneled to "review the conduct" of the State Police who investigated the case.


Special prosecutor Randall Harris, who handled the McCracken indictment, said the jury strongly believed that the State Police should have never investigated one of its own for murder.  State Police have countered that its investigations in both cases was proper.


Grice and Bill Houston had initially asked both the 13th Judicial District Attorney's Office and the Attorney General's Office for the grand jury probe but were turned down.  "We've been fighting the justice system for years and it's been like chopping down a giant tree with a little ax," Houston said. "You keep chopping and chopping, and sooner or later it will fall down."


District Attorney Lemuel Martinez, credited with reopening the McCracken case in 2001 and naming Harris as special prosecutor, declined to initiate a second grand jury to investigate either case.  "Lemuel Martinez would not do the investigation despite the previous grand jury's request because he did not want to investigate officers within his jurisdiction," Corwin said.


Martinez did not return a phone call to his office.


Michael Cox, director of the Attorney General's Office Special Prosecution and Investigations Unit, said his office does not have the authority to initiate such an investigation.  "In some states, the Attorney General has authority over investigations," Cox said. "That's not true in New Mexico. They (law enforcement) don't answer to us. They answer to their chain of command and to a lesser extent the district attorney. But even he has limited authority."  Cox's office did assist in the reopening of the McCracken case and the review of the Houston case, he said.


Corwin said without the aid of either the district attorney or the attorney general, the families were left with a little-known state provision that allows citizens to seek their own grand jury investigation, provided they submit the required number of signatures.


"There was nowhere else to turn to," he said. "It should not be the parents' responsibility to call for and to get an investigation going."  But that is what both Grice and Bill Houston did in their daughters' deaths. And that, they said, is when they discovered a mountain of discrepancies and intentional obstructions in both cases.


"We're not just looking at mistakes," Corwin said. "Mistakes get made. Cases sometimes get screwed up despite the best of intentions. But in these cases and others we don't even know about, we think there is an overt effort to improperly conduct investigations."