FOR THE RECORD: This story about the possible parole of Joel Lee Compton, convicted of killing police officer Gerald E. Cline in 1983, twice transposed the two names. The story should have said the parole board received more than 400 letters opposing Compton’s release, and that it was Compton’s blood alcohol level of 0.20 percent, not Cline’s, that Compton’s lawyer used to argue that Compton was unable to “mindfully” shoot Cline.
Yolanda Cline will head to Santa Fe in a few weeks, where a live television feed will show the face of the man convicted of killing her husband: a veteran Albuquerque police officer who was on duty when he was shot once in the heart 30 years ago at a Central Avenue motel.
For the March 6 State Parole Board hearing, Cline said she’s been told not to address the screen directly and to avoid profanity, rants and rages. But that might be tough, because she believes her husband’s killer has been living on borrowed time now for three decades.
Joel Lee Compton, now 59, was initially sentenced to death in September 1983 for killing APD officer Gerald Cline, 35, with a high-caliber rifle on Feb. 24, 1983, at the Tewa Motor Lodge.
Cline, who was responding to a call about a “suspicious person with a gun,” was shot once in the chest from close range and died almost immediately, police said after the shooting.
After a highly publicized trial that featured a surprise witness, police radio recordings and testimony from several psychologists, the jury needed only two hours to return a guilty verdict in early September. A few weeks later, Compton was sentenced to die by lethal injection and joined four other inmates on death row.
But in November 1986, then-Gov. Toney Anaya, a lame duck with a month left in his term, commuted the death sentences of all five death-row inmates to life sentences. The decision was lauded by defense attorneys around the country and harshly criticized by victims’ families and New Mexico district attorneys, according to news reports at the time.
A Corrections Department spokesman said Friday that when Compton goes before the Parole Board for the first time, he will deny any involvement in the crime and claim he has no recollection of killing the officer.
A State Parole Board spokeswoman said that the board has received more than 400 letters from around the country opposing Compton’s release. She also added that, generally, board members weigh whether perpetrators take responsibility or express remorse in deciding to grant parole.
In 1980, six years before the governor commuted the sentences, a state law was enacted requiring a minimum 30-year sentence for all convicted first-degree murderers, all of whom would thereafter have the opportunity to petition for parole every two years.
Yolanda Cline said in a recent interview that Anaya’s announcement to commute the sentences made her re-live the trauma of losing her husband, who was a 13-year APD veteran and father of three children, ages 12, 7 and 2 1/2 months, when he was gunned down.
She remembers having to break the news to her 12-year-old daughter and later the girl’s two younger siblings.
“She’s now a grown-up woman,” Cline said of her oldest daughter. “But I still see that little girl who was so distraught by the loss of her daddy.”Now, Cline braces for the prospect of seeing the face of her husband’s killer – albeit on a TV screen during the teleconference hearing – every two years until he is either released or dies in prison.
“I hold Toney Anaya personally responsible for that,” Cline said. “He, in turn, victimized the families the same way.”
In April 2011, Michael Guzman – convicted in 1981 for raping two UNM students, killing one and badly injuring the other – became the first of the five former death row inmates to face the parole board.
He was denied release.
When Anaya commuted the sentences, he said he was “dropping a pebble in the pond” in advocating against the death penalty, which he said is uncivilized, expensive and ineffective.
He also said he expected that none of the men on death row would ever step foot out of prison.
Reached by phone Wednesday, Anaya said his decision to commute the sentences has since been “vindicated with the passage of time,” but he recognizes the order has had a lasting effect on Cline and her family.
“I can’t even imagine the emotions that she went through, that she continues to go through,” Anaya said. “But this is the process. This is the action that I took.”
Part of the vindication Anaya spoke of came in 2009 when the New Mexico Legislature repealed the death penalty, he said, in addition to other repeals in states across the country. Of the 17 states that do not have the death penalty, five, including New Mexico, abolished it after 2006.
When the then-governor was first weighing commuting the sentences, he considered adding a condition that would eliminate the possibility of parole, he said. He also thought about asking the death row inmates to sign a contract promising never to petition for release.
“But the legal analysis was such that I didn’t have the power,” Anaya said, a former attorney general who now practices law in Santa Fe.
With Compton, in particular, Anaya said he didn’t expect the convicted murderer to be eligible for release until at least his 90th birthday. Compton is imprisoned at the Lea County Correctional Facility.
Anaya couldn’t remember the exact reasoning behind that decades-old estimate Wednesday. However, he said that he generally thought the five death row inmates’ crimes carried, in addition to the life sentences, sufficient additional convictions to make their release unlikely.
“I took that action that I did, without the conditions, with the pretty safe expectation that they wouldn’t be released,” Anaya said. “I can only tell you what I anticipated at the time.”
When Compton was sentenced to death in 1983, he was also convicted of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon for leveling his .30-caliber hunting rifle at drivers after shooting the officer. In addition, child abuse charges against Compton were forthcoming at the time of the murder trial, because he was accused of beating his daughter with a belt.
It is unclear whether Compton was ever sentenced separately for the assault conviction, or whether he was convicted of child abuse. However, the only charge for which he is serving a sentence currently, according to online Corrections and state court records, is first-degree murder.
Cline’s widow said she recognized immediately three decades ago that it was possible that Compton could eventually go free.
“Thirty years sounds like a long time,” she said. “… But 30 years evaporates.”
On that February night 30 years ago, Compton had been drinking vodka and bourbon for hours and had been quarreling with other guests at the lodge in the 5700 block of Central Avenue, east of San Mateo, police said at the time.
Cline pulled into an alley shortly before midnight and walked toward the lodge in response to the disturbance call. A shot rang out, witnesses said, and Cline was killed from a single gunshot wound to his heart.
Compton, who was then also a wanted felon for crimes allegedly committed in Texas, was represented at the time by Albert “Pat” Murdoch, a public defender at the time who went on to become presiding criminal judge of the Second Judicial District. Murdoch resigned in 2011 after facing rape charges involving a prostitute, which were later dropped.
Murdoch argued that Compton, who had a blood-alcohol of 0.20 at the time of the shooting, was too drunk to mindfully shoot and kill the police officer.
After the shooting, a massive public funeral was held in Cline’s memory. A park near Winrock Mall and a police substation on the 5400 block of Second Street NW also were named after the officer.
John B. Gallegos is a former APD officer who worked alongside Cline for two years before Cline’s death. He said Cline was always happy to teach tactics and talk about his kids, who will now have to know their dad only through the legacy he left behind.
“To have a park named after him, it kind of says he must be special,” Gallegos said. “For the kids, it reinforces that your dad was a hero.”
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal