Subscribe to the Journal, call 505-823-4400

          Front Page

Dueling Over Death Penalty

By Sean Olson
Copyright © 2010 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer

          But Denish, who supported abolishing New Mexico's death penalty last year, says the state's two death row inmates and the recently convicted Astorga, if sentenced to death, would not escape New Mexico's lethal injection gurney if she wins in November.
        While Denish, the state's lieutenant governor and the Democratic nominee for governor, opposes the death penalty in principle, she said she would abide by the law and not interfere with a jury's death sentence. Governors can commute death sentences.
        "A governor, first and foremost, is sworn to uphold the law that is in place. If a jury sentences a murderer to die under the law, it would be my sworn responsibility as governor to enforce the sentence and that's what I would do," Denish said Monday.
        Denish clearly differs with her Republican opponent in the governor's race, District Attorney Susana Martinez, on the death penalty issue.
        Martinez supports the death penalty and promises to use her bully pulpit to push the Legislature toward reinstating it if she wins the November election.
        The death penalty repeal, signed by Gov. Bill Richardson last year, took effect in July 2009. It does not apply retroactively, however, so death row inmates Robert Fry of Farmington and Timothy Allen of Bloomfield still face execution. Likewise, because of the date of the crime, Astorga still faces the possibility of capital punishment at his sentencing for the killing of Bernalillo County sheriff's Deputy James McGrane Jr. on March 22, 2006.
        Comments by Astorga's mother, Theresa Romero, after his conviction last week shoved the death sentence issue into the middle of the governor's race.
        Romero told KOB-TV on Friday that she didn't believe Denish would allow her son to be executed.
        "No, actually, I am putting all of my faith in God, who will use that candidate for governor," Romero said, when asked by KOB-TV if she was resting her hopes on Denish. "I know that Diane Denish is opposed to the death penalty, and I know that therefore no one will die by the death penalty in the state of New Mexico."
        Martinez said Denish's position on allowing the executions of current prisoners facing the death penalty and Astorga, if he is sentenced to death, is political and shows Denish does not have conviction in her own beliefs.
        "You either support it or you don't. I think that's part of the political speak that voters are tired of," Martinez said.
        Denish said her obligations as governor would supersede her own beliefs when it comes to allowing the execution of New Mexico's two death row inmates and, possibly, Astorga.
        "That reconciliation would occur between me, my faith and the sworn oath I take to uphold New Mexico's laws. As I stated before, it would be my sworn responsibility as governor to enforce the sentence, and that's what I would do," Denish said.
        Richardson said in 2009, while approving the repeal of the death penalty, he would not interfere in cases such as Astorga's, with the crimes occurring before the effective date of the repeal.
        Denish sent Richardson a handwritten note in 2009 urging him to sign the repeal but not did comment on death penalty cases originating before the effective date.
        Martinez, a longtime prosecutor from Las Cruces, said Monday that she supports the death penalty because it's the "appropriate punishment" for criminals who kill police, corrections officers and children.
        "It is also a deterrent to individuals who are contemplating committing those heinous crimes," Martinez said.
        Martinez does not support other restrictions on capital punishment cases, such as a requirement for DNA evidence before a murderer can be executed.
        There have been many state proposals, and some new laws, requiring DNA evidence in capital punishment sentences. The DNA laws followed numerous cases in which death row inmates, some of whom had been incarcerated for years, were cleared after DNA evidence was tested.
        Martinez said that requirement would rule out cases in which witnesses see a murderer kill a police officer but the killer does not leave DNA evidence behind. She said the overturned convictions of people on death row just show that there is enough technology available today to adequately determine who is or isn't a murderer.
        "In those cases, it goes to show that the system works," Martinez said.
        Denish has supported life without the possibility of parole as a sentence to replace the death penalty. She cites overturned convictions as a major reason to avoid killing convicted murderers.
        "Here in New Mexico, we simply cannot risk putting an innocent person to death," Denish said. "In addition, by the time a death row inmate exhausts all possible appeals, putting an inmate to death is ultimately more costly to the taxpayers than life imprisonment."
        Calling herself "a firm believer in science," Denish criticized Martinez's position that DNA evidence should not be a requirement for capital sentences.
        "To not include that type of evidence is utterly irresponsible," Denish said.

Call 505-823-4400 to subscribe
Submit a news tip | E-mail reporter