SANTA FE – Gov. Susana Martinez said Tuesday that she will add a proposal to reinstate New Mexico’s death penalty for certain violent crimes to the agenda of a special legislative session that could be called as soon as next week.
The capital punishment announcement drew immediate criticism from the state’s Roman Catholic bishops and other opponents of capital punishment, with majority Senate Democrats calling the governor’s announcement an “irresponsible distraction” from the state’s budget crisis.
However, proponents of bringing back the death penalty applauded it as timely and needed after a spate of high-profile recent crimes sent shock waves through the state.
Debate over the death penalty – which was abolished in New Mexico in 2009 and replaced with life in prison without the possibility of parole – has reignited in recent weeks after the death of 10-year-old Victoria Martens of Albuquerque, who police say was drugged, raped and killed by three adults, including her mother, and the killings of police officers in Hatch and Alamogordo earlier this year, and of a Rio Rancho and an Albuquerque police officer last year.
Martinez, a former prosecutor, said Tuesday that she would push for the death penalty to be available to prosecutors in cases where individuals have been convicted of killing children, law enforcement officers or corrections officers.
“These are the heroes who protect us, and our most vulnerable who should have had their whole lives ahead of them,” Martinez said in a statement. “Cop killers and child murderers deserve the ultimate punishment. If you kill an officer, you deserve the death penalty. If you kill a child, you deserve the death penalty.”
“It’s time we say enough is enough,” the two-term Republican governor added.
In addition to the death penalty, Martinez also will add a proposal to expand the state’s “three strikes” law for violent felonies to the agenda of the special session, which will focus on plugging a $589 million state budget shortfall for the current and just-ended fiscal years.
In response to the governor’s announcement, Archbishop of Santa Fe John C. Wester called Martinez’s proposal to reinstate the death penalty a “red herring” that will distract lawmakers from the task of finding revenue to pay for needed programs that will benefit children.
“We need to ask how can we help our children more, and we think that’s where the real issue is,” Wester said during a news conference in Albuquerque. “It appears to me to be politically motivated rather than a look at the issues.”
Wester added that Pope Francis has called for a worldwide end to capital punishment, saying, “It is not the state’s prerogative to take a life.”
“The death penalty does not end violence,” Wester also said. “Violence does not end violence.”
Martinez’s decision to add a proposal to reinstate the death penalty for those convicted of killing law enforcement officers and children could increase political tension during the special session.
All 112 legislative seats are up for election this year, and control of both legislative chambers is at stake. Addressing the emotionally charged issue during the special session could force lawmakers to vote just weeks before the Nov. 8 election.
The death penalty bill will be sponsored by GOP Reps. Monica Youngblood of Albuquerque and Andy Nuñez of Hatch. Nuñez voted in favor of repealing the death penalty in 2009.
Youngblood, whose district encompasses the Albuquerque elementary school that Victoria Martens attended, told the Journal she’s heard an outpouring from constituents in favor of bringing back the death penalty.
“They want to see that those who commit horrific crimes against children and those who ambush police officers … pay the ultimate penalty,” Youngblood said.
She also insisted the death penalty push was not driven by revenge or blood lust, saying, “This isn’t knee-jerk; this is addressing a problem we’ve had for multiple years now.”
However, Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, called Martinez’s announcement irresponsible, arguing that new death row cases would lead to increased court costs for taxpayers at a time of plummeting state revenues.
He also pointed out that New Mexico could not reimpose the death penalty retroactively, meaning that anyone convicted in connection with the high-profile recent crimes would not be eligible to be put to death.
“If the vote were to kill Victoria Martens’ killers, I think we could get in and out (of a special session) in a day, but that’s not the vote,” Maestas told the Journal .
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 of those states – Illinois, Connecticut, Maryland and Nebraska – have abolished capital punishment in the past five years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
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 being convicted of raping and killing Dena Lynn Gore, a 9-year-old Artesia girl.
Journal staff writer Olivier Uyttebrouck contributed to this report.