August 19, 2016

Call for death penalty echoes Legislature’s ‘tough on crime’ session

If Gov. Susana Martinez’s call to reinstate the death penalty after the killing of an on-duty police officer looks familiar, that’s because something very similar happened last year.

After the 2015 high-profile killings of Rio Rancho police officer Gregg Benne and Albuquerque police officer Daniel Webster, Martinez and Republican leaders in the state House of Representatives made tough-on-crime measures their signature effort during the ensuing legislative session.

Now, another high-profile death of a cop—this time Hatch police officer Jose Chavez—presents a similar political opportunity.

And this time, it comes ahead of a general election where Republicans are aiming to preserve their majority in the state House of Representatives and win control of the state Senate.

In a prepared statement announcing her intentions, Martinez also evoked the recent Dallas massacre of five cops during a protest prompted by police shootings of two unarmed black men in Louisiana and Minnesota.

“People need to ask themselves, if the man who ambushed and killed five police officers in Dallas had lived, would he deserve the ultimate penalty?” read Martinez’s written statement, provided to several media outlets (not including NM Political Report, despite a request to two public information officers). “How about the heartless violent criminals who killed Officer Jose Chavez in Hatch and left his children without their brave and selfless dad? Do they deserve the ultimate penalty? Absolutely.”

Democratic leaders quickly cast Martinez’s call as a cynical ploy to distract voters and others from New Mexico’s tough economic problems.

“This tough on crime politicking is consistent with the House Republicans’ crime dominated agenda during the recent [legislative] session,” state Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, said.

That legislative session, Maestas said, “was squandered by the House Republicans who introduced more than 50 crime bills.”

Most of those crime bills—specifically measures for a tougher three strikes law, giving cities control to establish curfews for minors and classifying violence against police under the state Hate Crimes Act—died in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

House Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said on social media Wednesday evening the death penalty move was just a distraction. He wrote New Mexico “finds itself mired in the worst economy in our region after years of Governor Martinez’s promises that tax and spending cuts will create jobs.”

“She and her advisors are trying to make New Mexicans forget that our economy is in shambles,” Egolf wrote on Facebook.

The state is facing financial problems that could reveal a budget deficit of roughly half a billion dollars. Martinez also told the Associated Press this week that she’d be calling a special session to try to fix that problem next month. She also ordered all state agencies under her control to cut their budgets by 5 percent earlier this month.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers are at odds on how to fix the budget. Martinez doesn’t want to raise taxes and Democrats don’t want to cut education spending.

Amid the budget problems, critics are raising questions of how New Mexico would pay for bringing back the death penalty.

Margaret Strickland, president-elect of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, noted that each death penalty prosecution costs taxpayers roughly $1.1 million.

Strickland also questioned the effectiveness of the punishment on making communities safer.

A 2009 survey by researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder, for example, found that 88 percent of current and former presidents of academic criminological societies surveyed said the death penalty doesn’t stop people from committing murder. Another 2013 study from Carnegie Mellon University concluded that the “certainty of apprehension” and not the “severity” of the punishment more effectively curbs homicides.

“Especially during a time of budget shortfalls, taxpayer dollars should be used only on measures proven to keep our communities safe,” Strickland said.

Egolf echoed that thought when he wrote that “we don’t honor the memory of fallen officers when we pursue policies that are widely known not to work.”

Gov. Bill Richardson signed into law legislation to abolish the death penalty in 2009.

NM Political Report reached out to House Majority Leader Nate Gentry to ask whether the death penalty would be a priority for House Republicans next January, the start of the legislative session. We will update this post if he responds.

When he was in the state Legislature, current Roswell Mayor Dennis Kintigh pushed unsuccessfully to pass a bill in 2012 that would have sent the death penalty question to voters. Kintigh told NM Political Report any new attempt should again be sent to voters.

Kintigh added that he doesn’t think reinstatement of the death penalty will necessarily deter murder. Instead, he argued it would stop repeat offenders.

“If they are executed they will never harm another individual again,” he said.

As for the cost, Kintigh argued it is not as great as “the cost if one of these individuals escapes and commits more murders.”

Similarly, Hatch Mayor and Republican state Rep. Andy Nuñez told KVIA-TV in El Paso that he was for the death penalty “because I just believe in that.”

“You know, back in the old days we used to hang people,” the 80-year-old lawmaker told the TV station.