February 3, 2018

Effort to reinstate death penalty dies quickly

New Mexico abolished the death penalty in 2009, and it is not coming back this year.

A legislative committee on Saturday quashed a bill that would have reinstated capital punishment for the murders of children, police officers and correctional officers.

The 3-2 party-line vote was no surprise, but it brought out some of the most visceral testimony yet of this year’s 30-day legislative session.

The recently discovered death of 13-year-old Jeremiah Valencia of Santa Fe County and stories of his tortured life loomed over the discussion.

But so, too, did the story of a former lawmaker’s son who was wrongly accused of murder and locked in jail until his exoneration.

House Bill 155 was just the latest proposal by Republican legislators in recent years to reinstate capital punishment for certain murders. They argued the measure would have made the death penalty an option again for only the worst of the worst criminals.

Rep. Monica Youngblood, a Republican from Albuquerque and the bill’s cosponsor, pointed to the high-profile murders of several children in recent years.

“While we’re all reading the stories of what happened to poor Jeremiah, last session it was Ashlynn Mike. The session before it was Victoria Martens,” she told the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee.

Youngblood’s measure would have applied only to murders committed after May 15, 2018, according to an analysis by legislative aides.

Under her bill, Youngblood argued, the death penalty would not be the mandatory sentence but an option for prosecutors in the most egregious cases at a time that New Mexico’s crime rates are rising.

But a range of organizations, from the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops to the American Civil Liberties Union, raised concerns that the bill would lead to wrongful executions, do little if anything to prevent crime and cost the state with rounds of legal appeals.

Legislative aides calculated the bill would have cost up to $7.2 million in the first three years.

Others argued the death penalty is simply immoral.

And Maurice Moya, a retired Albuquerque police officer, pointed to wrongful accusations and botched investigations in one high-profile murder case after another.

Moya raised the case against former state Rep. Stephanie Maez’s teenage son, who was accused of murder in the drive-by shooting of another Albuquerque teen in 2015 and spent a year in jail awaiting trial before the charges against him were dropped.

Prosecutors went on to accuse a young man who also was charged in another murder while the first investigation was ongoing.

“There have been a lot of cases where evidence was not looked at. It was not reviewed,” Moya told the committee.

New Mexico has had a complicated history with the death penalty.

Between 1979 and 2007, more than 200 death-penalty cases were filed. Fifteen men were sentenced to death.

One of them was executed, but only after he waived his appeals and said he wanted to die.

Two convicted murderers in New Mexico sentenced before the death penalty was abolished are still appealing their cases.

And in 1986, outgoing Gov. Toney Anaya commuted the death sentences of all five men on New Mexico’s death row at that time, calling capital punishment “inhumane, immoral and anti-God.”

Today, 19 states do not have the death penalty. Governors in three more states and the District of Columbia have placed a moratorium on capital punishment.

Republican Gov. Susana Martinez called for reinstating the death penalty during her first State of the State address in 2011, but she did not press the issue until 2016, when Republicans had a majority in the House of Representatives.

Republican House members in the predawn hours of a special legislative session a month before the general election approved a death-penalty bill similar to Youngblood’s. The measure died in the state Senate.

Democrats won a majority in the House, and subsequent proposals to reinstate the death penalty have met swift opposition.

The timing of the Saturday-morning hearing seemed to be a rebuke of the vote in 2016 that occurred while most New Mexico residents were asleep.

Saturday’s debate consumed about an hour of testimony.

On the five-member committee, Rep. Bob Wooley, R-Roswell, said he had mixed feelings about the death penalty, fearing wrongful convictions.

“On the other hand, the people that would be eligible for the death penalty are the worst of the worst,” he said.

The only Democratic representative to comment on the bill, Patricia Roybal Caballero of Albuquerque, said she had to oppose “any form of cruel, unusual and very degrading punishment.”

Contact Andrew Oxford at 505-986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewboxford.