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NM inmate wins court fight in 1979 murder case

SANTA FE (AP) — A Las Cruces man sentenced to two life prison terms for the 1979 killings of his wife and three stepchildren will be eligible for parole later this year, the state Supreme Court ruled Monday in a decades-old legal fight waged by the inmate.

The court decided Clifton Skidgel should be eligible for a parole hearing in September after serving 10 years of his second sentence of life imprisonment. A judge in a 1985 appeal had agreed with prison officials and concluded that Skidgel would be required to serve at least 60 years — a minimum of 30 years for each of the consecutive life sentences.

Skidgel was sentenced in 1980 after pleading guilty to the shooting deaths of his wife and three of her children, ages 16, 13 and 8. Another child, who was 11 at the time, was wounded.

Skidgel maintained that at the time of his plea he had been advised by his attorney that he would be eligible for parole in 20 years.

Skidgel was paroled in 2003 on the first life sentence and began serving the second in a state prison.

The Supreme Court agreed with Skidgel’s jailhouse appeal that his parole eligibility had been wrongly calculated. However, the justices emphasized that it was not up to the court to decide whether the 61-year-old inmate should be paroled. That determination will be made by the Adult Parole Board.

There were confusing changes in law in 1977 and 1980 to require inmates to serve 30 years rather than 10 years before being eligible for parole on a life sentence.

The murders occurred in September 1979 — shortly after a 1977 law had gone into effect on a delayed basis in July 1979, establishing the 30-year requirement. However, another 1977 law had left the 10-year parole eligibility provision in place.

Skidgel’s sentencing happened several months after a 1980 law took effect to clear up the confusion created by the earlier conflicting changes in state law.

Skidgel, who served as his own lawyer in his habeas corpus petition, argued that he should been eligible for parole after serving 10 years on his life sentences. He pointed out that a federal appeals court in 1989 had overturned the state Supreme Court and determined that an inmate needed to serve 10 years, rather than 30 years, in a similar parole dispute.

The 1980 law sought to require those convicted of first-degree murder after July 1, 1979, to serve at least 30 years before being eligible for parole. However, the federal appeals court said the law couldn’t be applied retroactively.

The justices noted that Skidgel had unsuccessfully challenged his sentencing several times in post-conviction appeals in District Court, but it was the first time his parole eligibility issue had made it to the state’s highest court.

In a filing with the court, Attorney General Gary King agreed that Skidgel’s parole eligibility had been wrongly calculated but maintained that he was still lawfully in prison for his murder convictions.