New Mexico GOP aims to bring back death penalty

Republican Rep. to file bill allowing capital punishment for murders of children, police or correctional officers

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Republicans will push to reinstate the death penalty when state lawmakers convene next week, setting up another clash over capital punishment nearly a decade after it was abolished in New Mexico.

State Rep. Monica Youngblood, a Republican from Albuquerque, said Sunday she will file legislation allowing the death penalty for murders involving children, police or correctional officers.

And Democratic legislators expect Gov. Susana Martinez will back the measure as well as several other sentencing bills, including a proposal to toughen the state's "three-strikes-and-y­ou're-out" law - the likes of which have been controversial with criminal justice reform advocates around the country.

Entering the last regular session of the prosecutor-turned-go­vernor's two-term administration, the push for tough-on-crime legislation might come to define the 30-day meeting at the Roundhouse and at the very least set up a showdown over a visceral issue ahead of an election later this year.

The death penalty is likely to face strong opposition from Democrats who have raised concerns about the risk of executing the wrongly convicted. And, they argue, it is expensive. A fiscal analysis of a similar bill proposed in 2016 found that reinstating executions could cost the state up to $7.2 million a year over a three-year period.

The Catholic Church has been staunchly opposed to capital punishment as well, maintaining simply that it is immoral.

"It's a nonstarter, as far as I am concerned," Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, a Democrat from Santa Fe, told a crowd of about 100 people during a talk at Collected Works Bookstore on Sunday (Jan.7) sponsored by the group Journey Santa Fe.

But Youngblood argued most New Mexicans support the death penalty and that allowing prosecutors to pursue it in certain cases is only appropriate in the face of murders that have shocked the state. The killing of Victoria Martens, a 10-year-old Albuquerque girl from Youngblood's district who was sexually assaulted and dismembered in 2016, is one such case.

Anyone who would murder a child, Youngblood said, should "not be in a position to hurt anyone again."

She added: "We need to make sure that those who murder police officers face those most stiff penalties."

"Will every district attorney go after [the death penalty]? Absolutely not. It gives DAs the option to seek the death penalty in those specific cases."

New Mexico abolished the death penalty in 2009. Between 1979 and 2007, when the death penalty was an option to prosecutors, there were more than 200 death penalty cases filed. Fifteen men were sentenced to death, but only one was executed.

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

Reinstating capital punishment would be an unusual step as other states abolish the practice. Nineteen states do not have the death penalty, and governors in three more states and the District of Columbia have placed a moratorium on capital punishment.

Martinez first said the death penalty should be an option for juries during her first State of the State address in January 2011.

Youngblood went on to sponsor bills in 2016 and 2017 that would reinstate the death penalty for certain murders.

House Republicans rammed through a bill similar to the one Youngblood will propose in the middle of the night during the 2016 special session. But the Democrat-controlled Senate did not take up the issue.

And last year, Democrats quashed the bill in committee.

But heading into an election year, with a jump in crime rates in New Mexico's largest city, the issue appears a likely flashpoint at the Legislature.

Wirth said Martinez wants her efforts to combat crime "to be her legacy."

Martinez already has said she wants lawmakers to vote on repealing and replacing a constitutional amendment on bail reform that she says is partially responsible for increased crime rates. That amendment, approved by 87 percent of voters in 2016, gives judges the right to detain suspects without bond before trial if they are considered dangerous or likely to flee. But that amendment also ensures some suspects will not be detained if they are not considered a risk to the community and because they cannot afford bail.

As a result, Martinez said in a Friday news conference, "It's nothing but a revolving door at the jail."

Wirth said the amendment is working because "you get the dangerous criminals into the [prison] system and get those who need treatment and help out." He said it costs the state $45,000 per year to incarcerate one inmate.

Wirth said he does not see the governor and state legislators grappling in a battle over the budget, given both the Governor's Office and the Legislative Finance Committee presented similar budget proposals -both supporting pay increases for state employees and teachers -last week.

Crime aside, Wirth said he did not see many such battles looming for this session, particularly since both sides want to act quickly on a number of priorities -including closing tax loopholes that benefit online businesses and enacting a new nurses' compact, so the state does not have to contend with a serious nursing shortage almost overnight.

The governor's proposed $6.23 billion budget calls for a 1 percent pay increase for state employees and 2 percent for teachers. The Legislative Finance Committee's budget suggests a 1.5 percent raise for all employees. For the most part, New Mexico has not raised salaries for its employees since 2014.

Contact Robert Nott at (505) 986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.c­om. Contact Andrew Oxford at (505) 986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexica­n.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewboxford. This story first was published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, a sibling publication of The Taos News.

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