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Editorial: Clarify law to punish child predators for each image

If you don’t think New Mexico has become a destination – or a haven – for child predators, consider these recently publicized cases:

Sept. 2: Paul Cunningham, a former Los Alamos pastor, was sentenced to one year in jail followed by two years of supervised probation after pleading guilty to one charge of possessing and one charge of distributing child pornography.

June 16: The Attorney General’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force announced it had made nearly two dozen arrests in a two-month operation. Fifteen of the 21 men arrested were charged with possessing and/or distributing child pornography.

May 26: Louie A. Mendoza of Albuquerque, then 63, was sentenced to 73½ years in prison for more than 20 convictions including criminal sexual penetration and also contributing to the delinquency of a minor for making a girl, then 9 years old, watch pornography and making her pose as a stripper while he took pictures.

Then there is Victoria Martens, 10, who was raped and killed on Aug. 24, allegedly by Fabian Gonzales, 31, and his cousin, Jessica Kelley, 31. The girl’s mother, Michelle Martens, 35, told police she watched for sexual gratification. It remains to be seen if child pornography was part of this terrible crime, but Albuquerque police in an affidavit for a warrant to search electronic devices found in Martens’ far northwest Albuquerque apartment reported that when child sexual abuse takes place, the perpetrators frequently record images of the crime. Police have yet to report any findings.

If New Mexico has become a child porn haven, perhaps to some degree it can be linked to a 2014 New Mexico Supreme Court decision written by Justice Petra Maes that concluded because of the ambiguous way the applicable New Mexico law is written, a defendant can only be prosecuted for one count of possessing child pornography even if that person has hundreds or thousands of images.

In 2015, a group of lawmakers led by state Reps. Sarah Maestas Barnes and Randal S. Crowder, both Republicans, and Javier Martinez, a Democrat, tried to fix this legal loophole. They carried a bill to allow for each image to count separately. It passed the House of Representatives unanimously but died in the Democratic Party-controlled Senate Public Affairs Committee.

No surprise that another important effort to hold predators accountable would die in the Senate.

In the 2016 session, Maestas Barnes, Martinez, Crowder and several other lawmakers, backed by Attorney General Hector Balderas, pushed through a bill that increased the penalty for one act of child pornography from three years maximum to up to 11 in some cases, but Democratic-controlled committees in the Senate again refused to allow charges to count for each image.

If the state is to get a grip on what appears to be an epidemic of child exploitation, lawmakers need to address ambiguous language in state law that led to the high court’s ruling and make each image count dearly for these predators.

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.