Gov. to push for return of New Mexico death penalty

Gov. Susana Martinez
SUSANA MARTINEZ

SANTA FE – In the aftermath of the recent shooting death of a Hatch police officer, Gov. Susana Martinez said Wednesday she will push during next year’s 60-day legislative session to reinstate New Mexico’s death penalty – at the least for child-killers and those convicted of murdering law enforcement officers.

Martinez, a former prosecutor, backed legislation to reimpose the death penalty immediately after taking office in 2011, but the proposal stalled that year in the Democratic-controlled Legislature, and the issue has not been part of the governor’s agenda in recent years.

In a statement Wednesday, the two-term Republican governor told the Journal, “A society that fails to adequately protect and defend those who protect all of us is a society that will be undone and unsafe.

“People need to ask themselves, if the man who ambushed and killed five police officers in Dallas had lived, would he deserve the ultimate penalty? How about the heartless violent criminals who killed Officer Jose Chavez in Hatch and left his children without their brave and selfless dad? Do they deserve the ultimate penalty? Absolutely.”

Nationally, there’s been a movement away from the death penalty in recent years. Nineteen states, including New Mexico, currently do not have death penalty laws on their books, and four states – Illinois, Connecticut, Maryland and Nebraska – have abolished capitol punishment in the past five years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Allen Sanchez, executive director of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Wednesday that the Roman Catholic Church will fight the effort to reinstate the death penalty.

“We’ve been through this debate,” Sanchez said in an interview. “As sad as (the Hatch police officer) shooting is, we believe the governor is just trying to create a distraction from what’s going on in New Mexico with poverty and need.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico also vowed to oppose the latest death penalty effort, which could emerge as a campaign issue during this year’s election cycle. All 112 legislative seats are up for election, and control of both the state House and Senate are at stake.

Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, called Wednesday’s announcement politically driven and unwise, given a looming state budget shortfall.

“If she truly believes the death penalty is good public policy, then she should attach an appropriation to (the bill) and we can have a debate on that,” Maestas said of Martinez.

Slaying of officer

The governor’s announcement that she will renew her push to reinstate capital punishment comes less than a week after Hatch police officer Jose Chavez was shot and killed after making a traffic stop.

Jesse Hanes, a fugitive from Ohio, has been charged with murder in connection with Chavez’s death. He also faces federal firearms charges. He was traveling with an accomplice on a cross-country trip funded by robbing banks and selling methamphetamine at the time their vehicle was pulled over, prosecutors have alleged.

Third Judicial District Attorney Mark D’Antonio, whose office filed the murder charge, indicated Wednesday that he would be receptive to reinstating the death penalty in certain cases.

“My priority is prosecuting the death of Officer Chavez, but I’m open to conversations about reinstating the death penalty,” D’Antonio said in a statement. “The death penalty should be the last resort for the worst of the worst and in certain situations like for cop-killers.”

Meanwhile, Martinez also cited the May killing of an 11-year-old Navajo girl near Shiprock in her statement about the death penalty. In that case, Tom Begaye Jr. is accused of kidnapping and murdering Ashlynne Mike.

“I think of poor Ashlynne and the horror she went through,” the governor told the Journal. “Does the monster who killed her deserve the ultimate punishment? Yes – absolutely.”

Although legislation to reinstate the death penalty has not been drafted, the Governor’s Office indicated it could apply to only certain types of cases.

“At minimum, we can all agree that it should apply to cop-killers and child-murderers,” Martinez spokesman Chris Sanchez said.

2009 repeal

New Mexico had the death penalty on its books for years, but then-Gov. Bill Richardson signed legislation in 2009 repealing capital punishment and replacing it with a maximum sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Opponents of the death penalty had argued that capital punishment was not cost-effective, and Richardson, a Democrat, said at the time he signed the repeal bill into law that he did not have sufficient confidence in the criminal justice system to be the final arbiter of who lived and who died.

However, the bill applied only to crimes committed after its effective date and several inmates remain on death row in New Mexico.

Before abolishing the death penalty, New Mexico had executed just one inmate since 1960. That happened in 2001, when Terry Clark received a lethal injection after having been convicted of raping and killing Dena Lynn Gore, a 9-year-old Artesia girl.

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