The New Mexico Supreme Court vacated the death sentences of the final two inmates on death row Friday, ruling the sentences were not in line with sentences for similarly “horrendous” crimes.
The court sent the cases of Timothy Allen and Robert Fry back to district court in San Juan County to instead impose sentences of life in prison.
New Mexico last executed an inmate in 2001 when convicted murderer and rapist Terry Clark died by lethal injection; before Clark, New Mexico had not executed an inmate since 1960. In 2009, Gov. Bill Richardson signed a bill repealing the death penalty in New Mexico.
Both Allen and Fry were sentenced under the 1979 law which allowed for prosecutors to seek the death penalty in certain cases.
Allen was convicted of the kidnapping, murder and attempted rape of a 17-year old in 1994. Fry was convicted of a 2000 murder and sentenced to death. He was also convicted of three other murders committed in the 1990s.
The state Supreme Court announced the split ruling Friday, with retired Justices Edward Chávez and Charles Daniels joining the majority opinion of Barbara J. Vigil. Chief Justice Judith Nakamura wrote the dissent, joined by retired Justice Petra Jimenez Maes.
Vigil wrote that the court commuted the sentences because “a death sentence must not be imposed if it is disproportionate to the penalties imposed in similar cases.”
Vigil wrote that when comparing the sentences of the two “to other equally horrendous cases in which defendants were not sentenced to death, we find no meaningful distinction which justifies imposing the death sentence upon Fry and Allen.”
She also wrote that the legislature’s repeal of the death penalty “represents a profound change in the legislative attitude toward the death penalty and a shift in the standards of decency.”
In her dissent, Nakamura wrote that the majority opinion’s contention “that, because so few offenders in New Mexico have ever been sentenced to die, no offenders shall ever again be sentenced to die” was an error.
Nakamura also wrote the majority opinion “strays beyond” the authority given to the court.
The three retired justices remained on the case because they were on the court when it was initially heard half a decade ago.
Republicans have sought to reimpose the death penalty for those who kill police officers or children in recent years. In 2016, the effort passed the state House but gained no traction in the Senate.