Thursday, December 04, 2008

Legislature 2009: Political shift could spell end to death penalty

Abolishing the death penalty is one of those "perennial" bills that pops up in the state Legislature every 60-day session, getting much discussion, raising emotions and eventually dying in some committee.

But with recent political changes in New Mexico, some think a death-penalty repeal stands a better chance of passing this year than in previous sessions.

Viki Elkey, coordinator of the New Mexico Coalition to Repeal the Death Penalty, said last week that she is more optimistic about the chances for a repeal bill this year because of two major political developments — Democratic victories in legislative races, including three state Senate seats, and the likelihood that Diane Denish and not Bill Richardson will be governor.

Richardson, who ran for president last year, was firmly opposed to abolishing the death penalty. The issue is a political hot potato and wedge issue frequently used by Republicans and other conservatives to label their opponents "soft on crime."

In 2005, when the Legislature was considering a repeal bill, national pundit Larry Sabato said Richardson couldn't afford to back such a measure. That bill is deadly to his campaign if he becomes a candidate for president," said Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "It's a no-win proposition for him. He needs to make certain that bill never makes it to his desk."

It didn't. The bill died in the Senate Judiciary Committee when a Democratic senator who previously had supported the bill changed his vote. The same bill met a similar fate in the 2007 session.

But Elkey said Denish — who will become governor if Richardson, as expected, gets appointed as secretary of commerce — is far more sympathetic to a repeal.

A spokeswoman for Denish, asked Tuesday about the lieutenant governor's position on the death penalty, declined comment.

Elkey said Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, once again will carry the legislation. Chasey has sponsored death-penalty bills in the past several 60-day sessions.

Another political change that might affect a death-penalty bill is the fact that there probably will be at least one less district attorney lobbying against it this time. In past sessions, Santa Fe District Attorney Henry Valdez has been on hand to lobby in favor of keeping capital punishment as an option.

But in January, Valdez will no longer be in office and his replacement, Angela "Spence" Pacheco, might not be taking up the cause to keep capital punishment. Pacheco couldn't be reached for comment, but in a May interview, she told The New Mexican she wasn't certain about whether she'd seek the death penalty in cases she prosecutes. "There has been so much in the news lately about innocent people being sent to death," she said. "It's the final punishment, and we have to be so careful we don't kill an innocent person. I would have to look at it very hard before I'd charge it."

In 1991, Pacheco was part of the prosecution team in the death penalty case against Ricky Abeyta in what was called "The ChimayĆ³ Massacre." Abeyta was convicted of seven homicides and sentenced to more than 120 years in prison. But the jury decided against imposing capital punishment.

As in previous years, the new bill would establish a penalty of "life in prison without the possibility of parole." Under current law, those who receive life sentences are eligible for parole after 30 years of incarceration.

Also, as in previous attempts to pass the bill, Elkey said most of the people testifying in committees for the bill will be people whose family members have been murdered.

The Coalition to Repeal the Death Penalty is an umbrella group that represents dozens of churches, religious organizations, legal and medical associations, and social-activist groups.

New Mexico is one of 36 states with a capital punishment law. The number slowly is going down. Last year, New Jersey became the latest to repeal its death-penalty law, replacing the sentence of execution with life without parole.

Two people are on death row in New Mexico. Timothy Allen of Bloomfield was convicted in 1995 of first-degree murder, rape and kidnapping. Robert Fry of Farmington was convicted in 2002 of two counts of first-degree murder; two counts of kidnapping; one count of rape; two counts of tampering with evidence; and a count of attempted robbery with a deadly weapon.

In Santa Fe, prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against John La Bombard, 35, and Justin Romero, 26. Both are charged with murdering Frank Segura in the Santa Fe National Forest in July.

Nine convicted murderers in New Mexico have died in the electric chair, the gas chamber and by lethal injection since the state Corrections Department began conducting executions in 1933. Before that year, executions were handled by individual county sheriffs in New Mexico.

The most recent execution was that of Terry Clark, a confessed child killer and rapist from Artesia. He was lethally injected in November 2001, becoming New Mexico's first legal execution in 41 years.

In New Mexico, serious questions have arisen about at least two men executed by the state — Louis Young in 1947 and Thomas Johnson in 1933. Both were black men convicted of murdering white women in Santa Fe. The Johnson case was the subject of a 2002 book by Ralph Melnick called Justice Betrayed: A Double Killing in Old Santa Fe.

In the past, abolition advocates have brought people who have been wrongly put on death row to the Legislature to talk with lawmakers. One who came in 2005 was Ron Keine, a former member of the Vagos motorcycle gang who was sentenced to death for an Albuquerque murder in the 1970s only to be exonerated a few years later when the true killer confessed. Keine, years after his release, became an official in his local Republican Party in Michigan.

Juan Melendez, who spent nearly 18 years on death row in a Florida prison until he was exonerated, has come to the state at least twice to lobby against the death penalty. Melendez now lives in the state and is involved in a theatrical presentation dealing with the death penalty.

(Steve Terrell | The New Mexican)

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