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House panel OK’s death penalty reinstatement, other crime bills

SANTA FE  — A bill to reinstate the death penalty that is sought by Gov. Susana Martinez squeaked through the House Judiciary Committee on a 7-6 vote late Friday, with Republicans voting in favor and Democrats opposed.

The same committee also approved two other crime bills, voting 12-1 to expand an existing child abuse law, and 8-4 to broaden the “three strikes” law that subjects those convicted of three violent felonies to mandatory life sentences.

But with the Senate already having adjourned the special session — and senators headed home –after approving a package of budget fixes, work on the crime measures could be an empty effort.

Democrats had opposed the governor’s putting crime bills on the agenda for the short special session.

Critics said the death penalty bill was a flawed, ill-conceived piece of legislation whose sole purpose was political: fodder for the GOP in the legislative campaigns ahead of the Nov. 8 general election.

“The committee should be ashamed to do this,” House Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, told fellow members of the House Judiciary Committee who were meeting close to midnight with only a handful of onlookers.

The death penalty bill was headed next to the House Appropriations Committee, while the other crime bills were scheduled to be considered by the full House, which was to meet later today.

The death penalty legislation would reinstate capital punishment for killers of police officers, correctional officers and children under 18.

The proponents of House Bill 7 pointed out that five police officers in New Mexico have been killed in 18 months, and impassioned family members of victims pleaded with lawmakers to endorse the legislation.

“There are just certain crimes that are inexcusable, and there has to be a deterrent,” said Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Deputy Michelle Carlino-Webster, widow of slain Albuquerque police officer Daniel Webster.

“These people are brazen. They don’t care if you have a badge … and we’re a target for them,” she told the committee.

New Mexico abolished the death penalty in 2009 after more than a decade of discussion, and the bill’s opponents said it was irresponsible to revisit the issue in a brief legislative session with little public input.

Ruth Hoffman, speaking for the New Mexico Conference of Churches, said the national trend “is to end this immoral, unnecessary and ineffective practice,” citing a number of people wrongly sentenced to death who have been exonerated.

And opponents said the bill was unconstitutionally flawed.

A recent horrific crime in which 10-year-old Victoria Martens of Albuquerque  was drugged, raped and killed was also part of the backdrop for the crime discussions.

“I understand the rage and frustration and the political desire to get this done now,” said Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, a member of the House Judiciary Committee.

But, he added, “We are in a constitutional budget crisis” that could potentially hurt the state’s credit rating, and he said that’s what lawmakers should be dealing with.

Under current law, intentional abuse of a child under the age of 12 that results in the child’s death is a first-degree felony punishable by life in prison. House Bill 6 would expand that to also cover children 12 to 18.

“We’re essentially saying that under current law a 12-year-old’s life is not as important as an 11-year-old’s,” said Rep. Sarah Maestas Barnes, R-Albuquerque, a sponsor of the bill.

Critics said the proposal was too broad in its scope and would not deter or prevent crimes against children.

House Bill 5 expands the “three strikes” law that subjects those convicted of three violent felonies to mandatory life sentences.

Critics say the 22-year-old law is so narrowly written it has never been used, and the legislation significantly enlarges the list of crimes that could make an offender eligible.