Author’s note: This letter was written in my personal capacity as a concerned citizen and resident of Saipan.
In this year’s election, voters of the Northern Marianas are asked to decide whether to retain Superior Court Judge Joseph Camacho for the next six years. To make an informed decision, voters should have as complete a picture as possible of the judge’s record. The information published in the media so far has focused on court statistics, but has left out an important and troubling part of the picture: the real human suffering and harmful social consequences created by the judge’s grave errors on the bench. The public has a right to know, especially when the judge’s record points to a pattern of abuse and mistakes in procedure or interpretation of law in ways that have deeply hurt people.
Nicknamed “Judge Maximum” and “Hammer Joe,” Judge Camacho has a reputation for issuing maximum sentences—often treating repeat offenders and egregious criminals practically the same as first-time, minor offenders. It is less well-known that some of Judge Camacho’s lengthy sentences have been overturned by the CNMI Supreme Court because of abuses or errors he committed that violated defendants’ rights.
For example, the high court has reversed or vacated Judge Camacho’s sentences of a man convicted of kidnapping and raping a teenage girl and forcing her to smoke ice (CNMI v. Michael A. Jackson); a storeowner convicted of sexually molesting a child who walked into his establishment (CNMI v. Jin Song Lin); a former police officer convicted of drunk driving, hitting a woman with his police vehicle and fleeing the scene (CNMI v. Martin I. Kapileo); a man convicted of sexually abusing a teenaged girl (CNMI v. Alfredo Reyes); a man convicted of sexually abusing a very young child on multiple occasions (CNMI v. Jose I. Santos); and a man convicted of sexually abusing a child over the course of years (CNMI v. Donald A. Hocog).
In one case (CNMI v. Michael A. Jackson), the Supreme Court ordered a new trial after finding that Judge Camacho had read jury instructions at the wrong time, and read an incorrect instruction. And in other cases, again and again, the high court found that Judge Camacho abused his sentencing discretion and failed to do what fair, reasonable, prudent judges should do: carefully consider both aggravating and mitigating circumstances to determine an appropriate sentence for each individual defendant. In some cases, Judge Camacho failed to order a pre-sentence investigation report.
Judges in most courts rely on the professional, impartial pre-sentence investigation reports that are painstakingly prepared by probation officers. These officers review the history of the defendant, the severity of the crime, aggravating and mitigating factors, and other elements of the case before arriving at their sentencing recommendation. A judge may ultimately choose to accept their recommendation or not. And yet, not only has Judge Camacho failed to require these reports—he is also known to have instructed probation officers not to include sentencing recommendations in their reports at all. But why? Only the judge knows.
And then there are the acquittals. The records I have reviewed indicate that since 2012, Judge Camacho has issued more judgments of acquittal at criminal bench trials than any of his colleagues at the court.
In a bench trial, the judge alone is the finder of fact and he alone determines guilt or innocence. A judgment of acquittal is different from a finding of not guilty. Not guilty means that no proof was found beyond a reasonable doubt, after both the prosecution and defense have presented and rested their cases. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is the highest standard of evidence in the law. A judgment of acquittal, on the other hand, may be entered after the prosecution rests and before the defense presents its case. The standard for moving a case forward is lower at this stage, and the judge must review the evidence in a light most favorable to the prosecution.
Judgments of acquittal in most courts are very rare. But out of 28 of Judge Camacho’s criminal bench trials that I have reviewed, 21 of these ended in acquittals—a stunning 75 percent. Among these acquittals: a teacher accused of sexually abusing a minor; multiple domestic violence cases, including child abuse; a law enforcement officer accused of assaulting a cashier; a former police officer and a former procurement officer accused of stealing a government vehicle; a man accused of stealing copper wire; the wife of a convicted sex offender accused of obstructing justice and attempting to influence the testimony of the victim of sexual assault; a man accused of stealing a police officer’s cell phone; and a man accused of assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest.
Judge Camacho has also dismissed charges in very serious cases at even earlier stages, during probable cause hearings. These dismissals include charges of sexual abuse of a minor filed against the former commissioner of the Department of Public Safety (CNMI v. James Deleon Guerrero), and another former police officer (CNMI v. Jesse S. Concepcion). Both law enforcement officers admitted to having sex with a minor in a police vehicle on multiple occasions. Incredibly, Judge Camacho did not find probable cause for any criminal charge at all—not even the misdemeanors of misconduct in public office. The Office of the Attorney General has turned to the Supreme Court for the extraordinary remedy of a writ of mandamus to reinstate the charges against these former officers, and to disqualify the judge from hearing these cases further. The high court has yet to decide.
In another disturbing case, Judge Camacho found no probable cause for a man accused of breaking into a home in the middle of the night and sexually assaulting a teenage girl while she slept (CNMI v. George Langu). Judge Camacho dismissed the sexual assault charges because he believed that the law did not criminalize nonconsensual sex between an 18-year-old perpetrator and a 16-year-old victim. He even described the case as a “Romeo and Juliet” situation, as though romance and consent had anything to do with it.
The Office of the Attorney General sought a writ of mandamus in that case, too, and the high court quickly responded, ruling that Judge Camacho had “clearly erred” in his interpretation of the law. The judge was ordered to reconsider his finding of no probable cause for sexual assault—because rape is rape, regardless of the age of the offender or the victim. The judge obeyed the high court’s order, but in his amended ruling he also appeared to disparage the victim, raising issues regarding her consensual relationship and sexual history that had no bearing at all on her case.
It is difficult to openly criticize the record of a sitting judge or oppose his retention. I know seasoned lawyers and advocates who are wary of crossing Judge Camacho because they fear retaliation that might compromise the interests of the people they represent. I can only imagine how much more fearful the victims of crime or court error must be.
But it is important to speak up, and I encourage the victims, their families, and their advocates to let their own voices be heard. Silence has a way of perpetuating harm, and it is only in talking openly about the problems we see that we can begin to address them. No matter what the retention outcome is for Judge Camacho, there will still be more that we can do as a community to reduce judicial abuse and error, and improve public safety and confidence in our courts. This includes more training for all our judges on sexual and domestic violence, victims’ rights, and proper sentencing procedures. This also includes petitioning for independent investigations of judicial misconduct.
As one who has seen up close the impacts of sexual assault in our community and in my own life, among people I love, I am troubled by the pattern and consequences of Judge Camacho’s erroneous decisions, especially in cases involving sexual violence and abuse of children. Based on my review of public records, my observations in court, my conversations at length with multiple credible people in our legal system, and Judge Camacho’s own words and actions, I cannot in good conscience vote yes to his retention. And I urge each voter to look carefully at Judge Camacho’s record for themselves and make their own conscientious decision whether to vote to retain him.
True justice is not a hammer. Our community is not safe when dangerous offenders go free because of procedural blunders committed by a judge. Our judges are not just when they fail to conduct fair trials or fail to issue fair sentences. And our courts are cruel when victims who have already gone through horrific abuse and the trauma of trial are subjected to retrials because the judge has made mistakes.
We need judges who are firm and wise, thoroughly versed in the law, and respectful of the rights of all people who appear in the courtroom—especially the most vulnerable among us. As voters we can choose to reject the retention of judges who do not meet that standard. And we can demand the appointment of judges who do.
Fina Sisu, Saipan