Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – A push to reinstate New Mexico’s death penalty for certain violent crimes could end up stuck in neutral in the coming 60-day legislative session, after Democrats reclaimed the state House in last week’s election and expanded their majority in the Senate.
Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, who sponsored the 2009 legislation that abolished New Mexico’s death penalty and replaced it with life in prison without the possibility of parole, said she believes the effort to bring it back will get a cool reception from Democrats, after some Republicans used the issue as campaign fodder during the election.
“We wouldn’t really have an appetite for it,” Chasey said this week, adding it’s unlikely the legislation would be passed out of its first assigned committee. “To me, it makes no sense from a policy standpoint.”
However, Rep. Monica Youngblood, R-Albuquerque, who co-sponsored a death penalty reimposition bill during last month’s special legislative session – it passed the House but was not voted on in the Senate – said she still plans to try, despite the election results that included the defeat of one of the bill’s other co-sponsors.
“I do still intend to carry (the bill),” Youngblood told the Journal . “I think the people of New Mexico – and specifically, my constituents – want it.”
She also said she’s been looking at other states’ death penalty laws and is open to making changes to the special session legislation.
Gov. Susana Martinez called in August for the death penalty to be brought back – at least for those convicted of killing children or law enforcements officers – after a spate of high-profile crimes sent shock waves through the state.
The crimes included 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 killing of police officers in Hatch and Alamogordo earlier this year.
Martinez, the state’s two-term Republican governor, expressed optimism the death penalty proposal and other criminal penalty bills could find traction in the Legislature, which will have some new faces in leadership positions, because Democrats won the House and longtime Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, was defeated in his re-election bid.
“The governor is going to continue to pursue legislation that cracks down on violent repeat criminals with tougher penalties, and that includes reinstating the death penalty for the most heinous crimes,” Martinez spokesman Michael Lonergan said. “The governor believes legislators will listen to victims’ families and the general public who want to see these bills pass.”
But it appears several legislators would have to change their minds before the death penalty could be reinstated.
During the special session, which ended Oct. 6, the House voted 36-30 in favor of the bill to reinstate the death penalty, with all House Republicans present voting in favor and all House Democrats voting in opposition.
Since then, Democrats picked up likely five and possibly six seats in last week’s election, apparently giving them a 38-32 majority in the House. Of the newly elected Democrats, at least three said in response to a Journal questionnaire that they would oppose bringing back capital punishment. Only one, Candie Sweetser of Deming, said she would support the proposal, and several others were noncommittal.
The questionnaire responses would appear to suggest defeat for the death penalty proposal in the House, unless minds are changed. And that’s not even considering the Senate, where Democrats picked up a net of two seats and will apparently enter the 2017 session with a 26-16 advantage over Republicans.
House Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, who is expected to be elected House speaker on the opening day of the 2017 session, suggested death penalty bills will not be a top focus once Democrats assume control of the House.
“If a member wants to introduce legislation reintroducing the death penalty, they would certainly have that option,” Egolf said in a recent interview. “But I think it’s fair to say it will not be a priority that takes precedence over putting people back to work.”
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 three of those states – Illinois, Connecticut and Maryland – have abolished capital punishment in the past five years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
However, last week’s election gave hope to capital punishment supporters, as voters in Nebraska voted overwhelmingly to restore the death penalty and voters in California narrowly rejected a proposed repeal of capital punishment.
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.
The first day to start filing legislation for the 2017 session is Dec. 15.