Tuesday, October 21, 2008
13 since '03 charged with killing while on probation
FOR THE RECORD: This story incorrectly stated that Brandon Craig was on probation at the time three teens were killed in 1999. Craig was on probation when he was charged with the killings in 2006.
By Hailey Heinz
Journal Staff Writer
At least 13 people sentenced to probation in the past five years have been charged with committing homicide while serving their sentences, according to a survey of court records.
Two of them have been charged with multiple killings while on probation, bringing the total number of deaths to 16.
One of those was Clifton Bloomfield, a repeat offender who last week was sentenced to 195 years in prison after pleading guilty to five murders and whose case has been held up as an example of judicial leniency gone wrong.
Bloomfield was on probation when he killed newlywed nurse Scott Pierce in June and Tak and Pung Yi, a prominent Korean-American couple in the Northeast Heights, in 2007.
A number of the cases are high-profile slayings: a 16-year-old strangled at a concert, a deputy gunned down in the East Mountains, a 17-year-old killed in an armed robbery gone bad and a 23-year-old aspiring artist shot in a Downtown parking garage.
District Attorney Kari Brandenburg, who has come under fire from her opponent in the DA race, said 16 homicides by probationers in five years is unexpectedly high.
"I'm surprised by that number," she said. "I would be interested to know what the circumstances are. Whenever something like that happens, I want to go back and say, 'What happened? How did we miss it?' "
She defended the specifics of Bloomfield's case and said there is no sure way to know whether an offender will get his life back on track or whether he will reoffend.
"We cannot predict human behavior," she said. "No matter how many years of experience, we can't tell what people are going to do."
Police Chief Ray Schultz sees a need for more cooperation between law enforcement and the justice system.
"I think it's important, and I've been asking for a long time that law enforcement be much more involved in knowing who is on probation, who is on parole, who is in community custody and what the conditions are of their release," Schultz said at a recent news conference on the Bloomfield case.
Probation is an alternative to prison and allows offenders to carry on their lives with varying degrees of supervision. Prosecutors can recommend it as part of a plea agreement, and judges have final discretion on sentencing.
In the Bloomfield case, prosecutors agreed to a three-year cap on prison time but did not make a recommendation on whether he should serve time behind bars.
District Court Judge Albert "Pat" Murdoch said a number of factors are considered before a person is put on probation.
"We try to look at every aspect of that human being," he said. "You're talking about their age, their background, whether we're talking about drug use, their prior records."
Murdoch said he also considers the nature of the crime and whether an offender has taken steps to turn his or her life around.
"You look at the crime itself. There are some crimes that absolutely don't argue in favor of probation," he said. "If it's a string of crimes, not an isolated incident ... if we're looking at something that contains violence, then you give that different attention."
When sentencing, judges hear recommendations from both the defense and the prosecution, as well as a presentence report from court staff that typically contains a recommendation.
Murdoch said 13 people the number of probationers who committed a homicide is a minute percentage of the people sentenced to probation in the past five years. While that exact number was not available, Department of Corrections spokeswoman Tia Bland said between 300 and 325 cases are added to state probation rosters each month.
"I think the system is doing what it can," Murdoch said, adding that it doesn't make sense to shift blame anywhere but to the criminals themselves. "Probation isn't responsible, jail isn't responsible, the DA isn't responsible. These individuals are responsible."He said he doesn't see a clear way to solve the problem.
"How do I address that? How do I read somebody's mind?" he said. "We look at all of these people for possible red flags that might indicate that they're dangerous, but the truth of the matter is that everybody who walks through my courtroom is a burning fuse, and it's almost impossible to tell which ones are going to go off."
Joan Shirley, an activist for families of homicide victims, said she thinks sentences throughout New Mexico need to be examined and that fewer people should be let out on probation. Shirley's son, Kevin Shirley, was one of three East Mountains teens killed in 1999. Brandon Craig, who has been charged with the murders, was on probation at the time of arrest.
"I think that we need to really be looking at our sentencing," she said. "Sentencing as a whole in New Mexico needs to be looked at more closely, and penalties need to be more severe for certain crimes."
Craig's trial is scheduled for March.
Shirley also said probation officers are stretched thin, making it hard for them to keep tabs on their probationers.
"There's not enough tether to the person to make sure that they're doing all the things they're supposed to do on probation because the probation officers are so overwhelmed," she said. But Shirley was quick to agree that human behavior is hard to predict, and judges make the best decisions they can in each case.
"It's just unfortunate that you can't see in a crystal ball that a person will start killing people," she said.