As a piece of proposed legislation makes its way through the process that turns a bill into a law, the goal is to craft it into something even better, clearer, stronger than it was in its original wording.
The exact opposite happened this legislative session with SB 59, Child Murder as Aggravating Circumstance. And Gov. Susana Martinez is right to veto it.
SB 59 sponsor Sen. Mary Jane Garcia, D-Doña Ana, has been a strong advocate in protecting the state’s most vulnerable residents — in 2005 she sponsored a successful bill that created life sentences for child abuse resulting in death. Unfortunately, her attempt to add a new deterrent against child murder was hijacked this year by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
There, instead of focusing on the young victims — children under the age of 13 — the committee put the focus on their killers.
Garcia’s original version allows a capital felony sentence — life-without-parole — for those convicted of murdering a child younger than 13. New Mexico repealed the death penalty in 2009, so this is the most severe punishment the state can hand down —and then only in a limited number of cases: those involving the worst of the worst who are convicted of killing a police officer, a kidnapping or rape victim, an inmate or jail guard, during a prison escape or committing a first-degree murder for hire or of a witness.
Garcia is correct. The murder of a child under the age of 13 is as heinous and deserves the same consequences.
Yet Senate Judiciary added an amendment limiting the stiffer sentence to cases in which a child was kidnapped before being killed. That’s already on the books, and instead of advancing protections merely reiterates the status quo.
A second amendment exempts defendants under the age of 18 from facing life without parole sentences for first-degree murder convictions. Sen. Lisa Curtis, D-Albuquerque, helped draft that language and says children should be shielded from the longer jail sentences. “We didn’t want to expose children to it,” she says.
New Mexico shouldn’t expose its children to the kind of brutal violence that can be meted out by a teenager whose gang knows he/she won’t have to face adult consequences. Garcia’s original bill would have prevented that.
And Martinez is right to hold out for a bill that will.
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.