'Why are these people allowed to live?' - Albuquerque Journal

‘Why are these people allowed to live?’

"I call this place (Albuquerque) Mogadishu," says Rio Rancho lawyer Don Vernay. "It's really astounding, the level of violence here. And I'm a kid who grew up on the streets of New York City." (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)
“I call this place (Albuquerque) Mogadishu,” says Rio Rancho lawyer Don Vernay. “It’s really astounding, the level of violence here. And I’m a kid who grew up on the streets of New York City.” (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

In my day job as editorial page editor, I see dozens of letters to the editor each week. But this one really caught my eye.

It was one of many sent to the Journal concerning the horrific last hours of Victoria Martens, who at 10 years old was truly an innocent.

The depths of depravity shown by her killers sent shock waves throughout the community, and, believe me, that included a newsroom of world-weary journalists.

It also deeply affected Don Vernay, a Rio Rancho lawyer who has spent his career defending clients facing the death penalty – mostly in Texas.

Many times, his efforts were unsuccessful. Three of his clients have been executed this year alone. He has worked to provide a defense to clients who run the gamut from mass murderers to child and cop killers.

Since one of his successful defenses involved a man prosecutors claimed killed a 10-year-old Montana boy in 1996, then cooked and ate him and served some of the dish to his neighbors, he thought he had seen it all.

But he said nothing prepared him for little Victoria.

“I’ve seen them all, but this one really, really hit me,” Vernay said. “It’s just beyond comprehension what these people did to that kid.”

So he sat down last Friday and wrote what he titled “My Personal Rubicon” and sent it to the Journal’s letters website, ABQjournal.com/letters.

“It really was a gut reaction,” he said Tuesday.

Here’s a portion:

“Although I am not one to argue religion or politics, I have nonetheless held my ground in the face of arguments made by those who voiced strong support for the death penalty – until I read the article in last Friday’s Journal setting forth the details of the unspeakable sexual assault, murder and dismemberment of an innocent 10-year-old child …

“Having put the paper down, instead of engaging in my usual knee jerk defense lawyer’s analysis of the manner in which these perpetrators could be represented, the only thought that entered and remained in my mind was ‘why are these people allowed to live?’ ”

Strong feelings coming from a man who has spent the last 30 years defending those charged with taking a life.

“I’ve represented guys for whom guilt is not an issue,” he said. “I’ve handled a lot of bad ones.”

Vernay recognizes that the role of an attorney is to give a client the best possible defense the rule of law permits – a job that someone will wind up doing for those accused in the Victoria Martens case. “But still, my thought was – I quoted from ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ – ‘why are these people allowed to live?’

“That was really a visceral reaction on my part, I mean, I’m not going to run out and say I’m pro-death penalty now because of this particular case, but this one really hit home. It just knocked the wind out of me.”

Vernay is not a member of the State Bar of New Mexico, but he was involved in the defense in an infamous local mass killing – the John Hyde case of August 2005.

Hyde was a mentally ill Albuquerque resident who in a single day shot and killed five people, including two police officers. Hyde remains in the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute in Las Vegas, where he will spend the rest of his life.

Vernay still has a few death penalty cases he is working on in Texas but today is focusing on creating metal sculptures that are shown in the Jezebel Gallery in Madrid.

He has also self-published a novel about the last day of a death row prisoner called “Today and Tomorrow” and has written a full-length play on the death penalty “that almost made it to Broadway.”

He moved to New Mexico 13 years ago. He had been looking for a home in Santa Fe but wound up in Rio Rancho after finding one with a room that was perfect for an artist’s studio. He didn’t move to Albuquerque:

“I call this place (Albuquerque) Mogadishu. It’s really astounding, the level of violence here. And I’m a kid who grew up on the streets of New York City. I’m not some country boy from Montana.”

As I said earlier, at some point, someone is going to get the unenviable job of representing the three people accused of killing Victoria.

New Mexico does not have a death penalty. But the accused in America have the right to a proper defense.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to editorial page editor Dan Herrera at 823-3810 or dherrera@abqjournal.com.

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