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Editorial: Justice Shouldn’t Have An Expiration Date

Kill somebody in New Mexico in a manner prosecutors can prove was first-degree murder (premeditated or during the commission of a felony), and risk having to face justice forever.

Kill somebody in New Mexico in a manner prosecutors can prove only as second-degree murder (there was a strong probability an action would result in death) or manslaughter (without malice), and wait for five or six years to go by to escape having to face justice at all.

Welcome to the statutes of limitations for taking a life in the Land of Enchantment.

The family of Albuquerquean Mike Snyder learned how unjust getting justice can be when the woman accused of killing him in 2002 — his wife who had run up $475,000 in debt, fired eight bullets from a borrowed gun at him, then buried him in the backyard and poured a concrete slab over his grave — cut a plea deal with prosecutors.

While the victim’s family opposed the plea bargain, prosecutors were faced with the prospect of Ellen Snyder walking free unless jurors in an old case found she was guilty of first-degree murder — the only alleged crime for which the statute of limitations had not run.

She would have faced as much as 251 years in prison had she been convicted of all the charges she had been indicted on. Instead, she agreed to waive the expired statute of limitations on lesser charges in return for pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter. Last week she received the maximum sentence, a pathetic 11 years.

Eleven years, for emptying a handgun at her 43-year-old husband who was frail and disabled from multiple sclerosis, then dumping his body into a hole in the backyard like the family pet — except without the ceremony or tears.

The threshold for first-degree murder in New Mexico is high, and rightly so. But that doesn’t mean the bar for lesser degrees should not only be lower but actually disappear after a few years. It turns justice for taking a life into an all-or-nothing race against the clock.

And while Mike Snyder’s sister, Teri Johnson, and her family are like many relatives of murder victims who want it all when it comes to justice for their loved one, they deserved something more than the nothing they feel they got in this deal.

They are meeting with Gov. Susana Martinez to discuss trying to eliminate the statutes of limitations for serious offenses.

That’s what New Mexico lawmakers did for first-degree murder in 1997.

Lawmakers need to recognize the problem with their well-intentioned but less-than-comprehensive revision, and they need to draft and support legislation for the 2012 session that makes it clear that when you kill someone in New Mexico, there’s no expiration date on justice.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.