Does a ‘Life’ Sentence Mean ‘Until Death’?

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico’s criminal law contains two punishments for first-degree murder. For first-degree murder with certain aggravating circumstances – a killing that used to carry the death penalty – the punishment is now life imprisonment with no parole. For all other first-degree murders, the sentence is also called life imprisonment, but it comes with the possibility of parole after 30 years.

The state Parole Board isn’t obligated to grant parole and let murderers out after 30 years and, in fact, it almost never does. But it is bound by law to evaluate each lifer’s request every two years and consider granting him parole.

The current chairwoman of the state Parole Board, however, says she believes a life sentence means a life spent in prison, not only 30 years.

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“If you’re convicted of life imprisonment, I think it means natural life. I think ‘life’ means life,” Sandra Dietz said. “These are the most egregious homicides that were committed, they usually have a strong premeditation, and they sometimes include more than one death.”

When she considers parole, she asks herself how many years in prison are adequate to make up for a life taken in a homicide and considers the wishes of the victim’s loved ones. She has never voted for parole.

Dietz, who was appointed to the board by Gov. Bill Richardson and continues to serve out her six-year term under Gov. Susana Martinez, says she doesn’t believe her hard line prevents inmates from getting a fair hearing, but others do.

Another Richardson holdover member of the Parole Board was fired by Martinez at the end of April after she aired her concerns about Dietz’s bias in a blistering letter. And the Parole Board’s executive director, who had also questioned the chairwoman’s fairness, was also canned.

A prominent defense attorney says Dietz’s bias against parole deprives inmates of their legal right to parole consideration and says Dietz, whose term ends next year, should resign or be fired by the governor.

The issue is bubbling up now because the Legislature changed the state’s life-in-prison sentence in 1980 to increase it from 10 years to 30 without good time before parole consideration. In the prison equivalent of a baby boom, murderers sentenced under the 1980 law are just now starting to come before the Parole Board for consideration of release.

Dietz spent her career as a victim advocate in the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office. Among other duties, it was Dietz’s role to stand at the side of crime victims or their loved ones, holding a tissue box and comforting them as they tearfully asked judges to impose tough sentences.

Dietz is steeped in the prosecution and victims’ side of the justice system. She makes no apologies for her bias.

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“It’s a philosophical difference based on where my professional life has come from,” Dietz said. “I think I was placed on the board in the beginning for my victim advocacy background.”

The governor, a career prosecutor, has a similar outlook.

Her spokesman said in a statement, “The governor believes that the public expects those who are sentenced to life imprisonment to, in fact, spend the rest of their lives behind bars. They have committed the most serious and deadly crimes. They are eligible for a parole hearing after 30 years, and, in rare cases, circumstances may warrant their release.”

Mary Thompson, whom Martinez removed from the Parole Board in April, told me she understands the “throw away the key” attitude.

“The general population probably agrees that when someone commits a murder, they should never be released,” Thompson said. “But that’s not the law.”

Thompson said Dietz considered only the crime and its emotional impact on victims and survivors and had her mind made up before she looked at any evidence of an inmate’s history of behavior in prison or other evidence of how he might do on the outside.

She also said Dietz placed herself on the majority of 30-to-life panels, on which a quorum of two members is required, so she could ensure a no-parole outcome. As chairwoman, she also acts as a tiebreaker in a split decision.

Dietz denies stacking panels in her favor. The Parole Board consists of 15 members who each serve six-year terms. Dietz has placed herself on nine of the 18 life imprisonment hearings, including six of the seven held so far this year.

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Since 2010, when the 30-to-life inmates started to come up for parole, only one – Donald Whittington – has been approved for parole. Whittington’s parole was approved in 2010. He left prison in 2011 and violated his parole with an arrest for fighting and returned to prison this year.

Veteran defense attorney Mark Donatelli told me the state is violating the law if it has made it a policy to not consider all aspects of a prisoner’s parole plan with an open mind because the governor and the Parole Board chairwoman don’t believe in paroling murderers.

” ‘Life’ doesn’t mean life,” Donatelli said. “According to the statements made by Miss Dietz and the Governor’s Office, they have clearly established a policy of not releasing anyone at this point regardless of the merits of the parole plan. That’s a clear violation of the law.”

He said that defense attorneys are looking at legal options for inmates who have served 30 years of their life sentences and have been denied parole, and that Dietz should resign.

Dietz says she is following the law; that she can simultaneously be inclined against parole but also fairly consider it. She said she could imagine a circumstance in which she might vote for parole – if an inmate was elderly and the victim’s family supported release.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Leslie at 823-3914 or llinthicum@abqjournal.com. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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