Darci Pierce in 1987 kidnapped a woman who was 8 months pregnant. She drove her to a remote area in the East Mountains where she strangled her, cut out her baby with a key, then tried to pass the baby off as her own.
Frank Martinez and two other men in 1993 raped a 12-year-old girl, stabbed her, and choked her with a belt as he drowned her in a puddle of muddy water, then set the body on fire on Mount Taylor.
And in 2003, Gabriel Avila raped and murdered a 22-year-old woman who was walking home from a party in Las Cruces. He then tried to burn her body.
The attorney general and district attorneys statewide say a bill passed by the Legislature could potentially make it easier to put these three – and the other 421 people serving a life sentence – back on the street by making dramatic changes to the rules of probation and parole.
And they are urging Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to veto the legislation, House Bill 564. The bill passed the House 51-16 and the Senate 26-6 and now awaits Lujan Grisham’s signature.
“Plainly stated, this bill poses a significant public safety risk if signed into law,” 12th Judicial District Attorney John Sugg wrote in a letter to the governor that was also signed by Attorney General Hector Balderas and DAs from every district in the state.
“We gave our word to New Mexico’s families that we would keep the most violent offenders and murderers behind bars when we abolished the death penalty,” Balderas said in a statement. “We must keep our word.”
Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, the bill’s sponsor, in an email to the Journal, contested the DAs’ contentions and said the only difference is that the parole board would be required to make “written findings” in its decision.
“HB 564 does not change the law in any way regarding the power and authority of the parole board,” he said.
Maestas said he was disappointed the DA’s Association “chose to resort to fear mongering after the fact instead of participating in the legislative process during the session.”
The DAs and AG also contend that the bill “attacks both the judicial and executive branches’ ability to work to rehabilitate criminal offenders, provide restitution to victims, and protect the public.”
They criticize the bill’s handling of probation – which they say includes a policy dictating mandatory reduction to supervised probation, limiting a judge’s discretion on violations and ambiguous language referring to punishment for violation.
However, Maestas says the bill comes down to stemming recidivism.
“Our recidivism rate in New Mexico is horrible and makes us less safe,” he said. “We must take bold steps to reduce recidivism and keep communities safer.”
Maestas said 22 states have enacted similar strategies around revocations from supervision that have resulted in less crime and lower costs.
One of the prosecutors’ biggest issues with the bill is how it would change the parole process.
As it stands, a parole board is now required to look at specific factors when deciding to release anyone who has served 30 years of their sentence. These include the severity of the crime, whether a deadly weapon was used and if the inmate is a habitual offender.
But those mitigating factors are stricken from the language of the bill, which would instead ask the board to “consider all pertinent information.” The board would decide what information is pertinent.
“All of those things, obviously, are things that would be relevant from a victim or victim’s family perspective,” president of the DA’s Association Dianna Luce said, referring to the mitigating factors currently spelled out in the law. “It gives the statute a completely different meaning when they purposely strike something that was already there.”
Luce, who oversees the Fifth Judicial District, said the idea of the bill being open to interpretation is concerning. She said the board may now focus more on the inmate being paroled rather than looking at the “whole picture.”
“The big picture is public safety,” she said.
In the letter, Sugg said one of the greatest misconceptions “floating around the Roundhouse” was that “hundreds, if not thousands” were serving life sentences for nonviolent offenses.
According to the New Mexico Sentencing Commission, there are around 7,500 prisoners in the state in 2018. Sugg said 424 of them are “lifers” and the names read like a “Who’s Who List” of the state’s most dangerous offenders.
Sugg said nobody is serving a life sentence in the state’s “three strikes law” and the “overwhelming majority” are behind bars for first-degree murder.
“If the Legislature wants to amend the penalty for murder, from life to 30 years, then they should be transparent about that,” Sugg said. “Show the public what you’re actually doing and let’s see what the public wants.”
The DAs also took issue with language regarding probation. For instance, according to the bill, after one year of supervised probation a person would have a month of unsupervised probation credited to their sentence for every month served without a violation.
That means someone sentenced to three years of supervised probation could actually only serve two years if they don’t violate.
Sugg said this would undercut a judge’s authority in probation sentencing as well as the probation officer’s discretion in how that probation should be carried out as time progresses.
But Maestas, in his email said, “This modern language gives more discretion to probation officers and Judges to enforce restitution, hold offenders accountable and proportionately deal with those we are tasked with rehabilitating.”
Maestas could not be reached for further comment.
Meanwhile, Luce said she doesn’t agree with Maestas’ contention that the group has waited until after the fact to voice opposition.
“We participated,” she said. “We were there expressing our concerns and standing in opposition of the bill.”
Luce and Sugg said they had been tracking the bill all along. Now it comes down to the governor.
“This is kind of our last chance,” Sugg said.