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Death penalty not popular with NM juries

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — If one believes in the death penalty as a just punishment for murder, then Robert Fry was deserving.

The Farmington man was 28 when he and a friend offered a ride to Betty Lee, a sobbing, stranded 36-year-old mother of five from Shiprock in the summer of 2000. He stabbed her, stripped her, stalked her and bashed in her skull with the swing of a sledgehammer off a lonely stretch of highway in San Juan County.

Fry’s trial two years later was moved to Albuquerque because of the publicity it had generated in Farmington, which is how I stumbled upon it.

It was a fortuitous stumble for a crime reporter like me because it led me to witness the last case in which the state of New Mexico condemned a man to death.

The shocking sentence appeared to stun everyone, including San Juan County prosecutor Joe Gribble, who moments before the jury came back predicted that Fry would be given the alternate sentence of life plus 46 years.

“New Mexico juries just don’t like to give out the death penalty,” he said.

He was right then and, 14 years later, he is right now.

For all our outrage and hand-wringing over recent horrific homicides of innocent children, law enforcement officers and others, it’s just not in our nature to approve of state-sanctioned executions. In the seven years between Fry’s trial in 2002 and 2009 when the state repealed the death penalty, New Mexico has had enough heinous murders to keep an executioner busy.

Yet no other defendant has been sentenced to death. Even Fry faced the death penalty twice more in two separate trials involving gruesome murders of three victims. Each time, jurors opted for a life sentence.

Fry and Timothy Allen, sentenced to death in 1995 for the rape and murder of a San Juan County teenager, are the only two occupants on death row. Neither has a death date. The last execution happened in 2001.

Yet here we are considering reinstating the death penalty during the special session of the Legislature, the ongoing $50,000-a-day jamboree in Santa Fe called by Gov. Susana Martinez last Friday to dig out the state from a huge budget hole.

Martinez, a Republican and former district attorney whose tough on crime stance has always been her fallback position when the going gets tough, tossed the death penalty debate into the hastily called session, fulfilling her promise to bring the issue out of mothballs after a spate of horrific and high-profile killings of children and police officers. The polarizing issue is also sure to provide enough campaign literature ammo against Democratic House and Senate politicos who are in opposition of the bill.

But what a bill! Apparently, the session was such a surprise – called during Balloon Fiesta week when even hotels in Santa Fe are higher priced and harder to find – that an appropriately worded death penalty legislation could not be crafted in time.

Instead, it appears House Bill 7 – sponsored by Rep. Monica Youngblood, R-Albuquerque – is a dusted-off version from barbaric days of yore when it was acceptable to use offensive words like “retarded” and humiliate a woman by forcing her to be examined by three “disinterested physicians of good standing” in the presence of a judge should pregnancy be a concern before she is put to death. All that was included in the bill.

(Side note: Since statehood, New Mexico has sought the death penalty for a woman only once, but jurors demurred.)

Late Monday, the House Appropriations and Finance Committee yanked out the offensive portions of the bill and passed it on a 8-6 vote along party lines. The bill now goes to the House floor and then onto the Senate, where it is expected to be just as condemned as the two men on death row.

I suspect, though, we will not have heard the last of it.

My newspaper ran a poll that found that 65 percent of New Mexicans favor reinstating the death penalty for those convicted of killing children, law enforcement officers or correction officers. That goes against a national survey released this month by the Pew Research Center that found just 49 percent of Americans say they support capital punishment, a 45-year low.

And I get it. The Journal poll comes at a time when New Mexicans feel heartbroken, helpless and enraged over recent monstrous murders. Reinstating the death penalty, to some, must seem like a way to stem the bloodshed.

But perhaps the solution should be, among other things, one New Mexico is actually willing to implement. If history is any indication, the death penalty is not it.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to to submit a letter to the editor.