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New Mexico court to hear death sentence appeals

deathpenSANTA FE — New Mexico’s only inmates facing possible execution want the state’s highest court to declare their death sentences unconstitutional because capital punishment was abolished after their convictions.

The state Supreme Court has scheduled a two-hour hearing Monday to consider arguments from lawyers, but the justices aren’t expected to issue a ruling until months later.

A similar legal challenge is pending in Connecticut involving death-row inmates sentenced before that state abolished capital punishment in 2012.

New Mexico repealed the death penalty in 2009 for future murders but left it in place for Timothy Allen and Robert Fry, who were sentenced to die years before the Legislature and then Gov. Bill Richardson agreed to end capital punishment.

Richardson didn’t commute the inmates’ death sentences. Governors of Illinois and New Jersey did that for death-row inmates after their states ended capital punishment.

No execution has been scheduled for either Fry or Allen. Their death sentence challenge grew out of pending habeas corpus post-conviction appeals in state district court.

Lawyers for the inmates contend that the death sentences violate constitutional provisions against cruel and unusual punishment and equal-protection guarantees in light of the repeal, which applied to murders that happened on or after July 1, 2009. They’re asking for sentences of life in prison without parole.

The attorney general’s office maintains that the inmates’ death sentences should remain in place because the state has a long-standing policy of punishing criminals according to the law in place at the time of their crimes.

Fry was the last person sentenced to death in New Mexico, and was convicted of killing a San Juan County woman in 2000.

Allen was sentenced to die for strangling a 17-year-old girl in northwestern New Mexico in 1994.

New Mexico’s last execution was in 2001. Child-killer Terry Clark’s execution was the first in the state in 41 years.