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Bill to bring back death penalty in New Mexico stalls

SANTA FE – A bill to reinstate New Mexico’s death penalty for those convicted of certain violent crimes stalled Sunday at the state Capitol, just five months after similar legislation was approved by the state House.

The difference?

With Democrats having reclaimed a majority in the House in last November’s general election, there appeared to be little appetite for bringing back the death penalty, which lawmakers abolished in 2009 and replaced with life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Rep. Monica Youngblood

Rep. Monica Youngblood

“I’m obviously disappointed,” said Rep. Monica Youngblood, R-Albuquerque, after the legislation she is sponsoring was tabled on a party-line 3-2 vote in the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee. “You walk in here knowing what’s going to happen.”

Gov. Susana Martinez called last year for the death penalty to be brought back 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.

However, the state’s Roman Catholic bishops have opposed the push to reinstate the death penalty, and several religious leaders testified Sunday against the legislation.

Others spoke against the measure, too, including a woman whose 17-year-old daughter was murdered in Kansas City in 1997.

“It’s never justice to kill someone,” the woman, who asked to be identified as Jacqueline, told committee members. “It’s just revenge.”

House Bill 72, the bill tabled Sunday, would reinstate the death penalty for those convicted of killing law enforcement officers, corrections officers and minors.

It was similar to the legislation approved by the House during a special session last fall. That legislation was never acted on by the Senate.

If approved, this year’s measure could have cost the state an additional $2.4 million in the 2018 budget year – and perhaps more in future years – due to increased legal and prison expenses, according to a legislative analysis. The bill stipulated lethal injection would be the state’s method of execution.

During Sunday’s debate, Youngblood questioned the cost estimates in the legislative analysis of the bill, noting it would merely give judges and juries the option of imposing a death penalty sentence in eligible cases.

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.

Dianna Luce, the district attorney in southeast New Mexico’s 5th Judicial District, testified as an expert witness Sunday for the legislation, and said the state’s current criminal penalties are not stiff enough.

“New Mexico is the best place in the United States to be a criminal,” Luce said.

Nationally, there’s been a movement away from the death penalty.

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 six years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In other action Sunday, the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee also tabled on identical 3-2 party-line votes a pair of abortion-related measures pushed by Republican lawmakers.

Votes on those bills, which are unlikely to be revived during the ongoing 60-day legislative session, came after emotional testimonials and lengthy debate. The bills are:

• House Bill 220 – Would bar late-term abortions, or those done after 20 weeks of pregnancy, except for cases in which a woman’s life was in danger.

• House Bill 221 – Would require girls under age 18 to notify their parents or guardian at least 48 hours before having an abortion.

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