Columns

New Mexico Democrats Squash Three-Strikes, Death Penalty Proposals

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Jordan's Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein, delivers his speech, during a Panel discussion on the situation of human rights in the Syrian Arab Republic, during the 34th session of the Human Rights Council, at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Tuesday, March 14, 2017. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP)

The August rape, murder, and dismemberment of a 10-year-old girl and the shooting death of two police officers in New Mexico were more than sufficient to convince New Mexico Republican Rep. Paul Pacheco that the state’s three-strikes law that covered only five crimes had to be expanded.

But those crimes weren’t enough to convince Democrats of the wisdom of his legislation.

The killing of Victoria Martens was an especially heinous crime. Court documents obtained by KOAT-TV show the child’s mother may have invited men to her Albuquerque home to have sex with the girl.

Michelle Martens told police, according to arrest warrants, that it wasn’t the money that motivated her to find men online to have sex with her daughter; she just enjoyed watching men have sex with the child.

The girl was drugged, raped, strangled and stabbed in August. Three people, including Victoria’s mother, face first-degree murder and aggravated criminal sex penetration of a child under 13, AP has reported.

Also in August, Officer Jose Chavez of the Hatch, N.M., police department was shot and killed. The man suspected of that crime is one of two Ohio murder suspects who happened to stop at a convenience store in New Mexico.

Then in September, a four-year veteran of a suburban Albuquerque police department, Clint Corvinus, was killed while trying to capture a man on three arrest warrants.

Those crimes pushed Pacheco and many of his fellow Republicans, including Gov. Susana Martinez, to take a hard stance on reforming the way New Mexico treats killers and rapists.

“The current (mandatory sentencing) law as it stands, in my humble opinion, is ineffectual,” Pacheco told the Las Cruces Sun-News. “The law is a joke.”

His legislation to add 16 crimes to the list of criminal offenses for which the punishment would be a mandatory sentence of life behind bars for a third conviction was backed by Gov. Martinez.

“I’d like to see a three-strikes law in New Mexico that is workable,” Martinez told the AP. “We have one. But as a prosecutor for 25 years, I was never able to prosecute anyone who had committed three different violent crimes” under the law’s set timetable.

She also endorsed a proposal to reinstate capital punishment in New Mexico. The bill called for the death of people convicted of killing police officers, children and corrections officers.

Martinez ordered a special legislative session to remove New Mexico’s budget problems. Funding cuts for state courts, prosecutors, public defense attorneys and social services programs were on the table.

Republicans added Pacheco’s bill to lengthen the list of third-strike offenses by 165 and the move to reinstate the death penalty to the special session’s agenda. Enraged Democrats accused Martinez and the GOP of playing politics at a time when the financial future of New Mexico hung in the balance.

Democrat Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton argued it didn’t make any sense to approve a three-strikes law expansion, which was estimated to cost New Mexico $60 million for extra prison costs, at a time when they were already having trouble balancing the budget.

“You cut the hand of the one that takes care of you,” she said. “We should provide the resources before it gets to the three-strike law.”

Even though the murders of Victoria Martens and two police officers gave Rep. Pacheco a new reason to push for an expansion of the crimes covered by New Mexico’s three-strikes umbrella, this was not a new crusade.

He said in 2015 that the legislation would be introduced the following year.

Mike Coyte, president of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, told the Albuquerque Journal when Pacheco first floated the idea that imposing mandatory sentencing and three-strike laws on judges was a bad idea.

Coyte said mandatory sentencing has proven to be “a failed experiment” in America.

“The national trend is to back away from such legislation,” Coyte said, “which has proven to be ineffective and prohibitively costly.”

The anti-crime bills, along with budget legislation, were approved by the House after six hours of emotional debate.

House Democrats, like Minority Leader Brian Egolf (D), criticized Republicans for holding the capital punishment debate in the pre-dawn hours when most of their constituents were sleeping.

“I am not proud of this moment in the House, not one bit,” the Santa Fe New Mexican reported Egolf said during the debate.

Neither side believed the death penalty bill would survive in the Senate. But partisan animosity kept most of them awake and debating.

Democrat Rep. Matthew McQueen tweeted out the word that “Multiple Republicans are ‘sleeping’ in the house lounge during #DeathPenalty debate. That’s how seriously they’re taking this.”

Still, four House Republicans who voted to repeal New Mexico’s death penalty in 2009 voted to reinstate it.

GOP Rep. Andy Nunez, who was a Democrat when he cast his 2009 vote to end the death penalty, said the sentence of life without parole had not been an effective alternative to capital punishment, especially in light of the recent killings of law enforcement officers and children that shocked New Mexico.

Rep. Monica Youngblood, the Republican who was the primary sponsor of the bill to reinstate the death penalty, echoed Rep. Pacheco in pointing to the deaths of two police officers and 10-year-old Victoria Martens during the debate.

“These children,” Youngblood said, “these officers, deserve justice.”

However, Democrats who control the Senate didn’t see it that way. They quickly passed a $371 million package to resolve New Mexico’s budget crisis. It took them less than 30 minutes to do that and adjourn just as speedily, and they left House-approved crime legislation and Rep. Youngblood’s hope for justice to die.

Some in New Mexico found the Senate’s inaction on the three-strikes and death penalty bills approved by the House to be particularly troubling in light of an Albuquerque Journal poll that showed 89 percent of likely voters considered crime in New Mexico to be a serious problem.

So why would Democrats ignore legislation to put killers to death, or even to make sure they went behind bars forever with the murders of two police officers and a 10-year-old girl fresh in New Mexico’s collective mind?

“There is one obvious reason,” wrote the Albuquerque Journal Editorial Board. “Senate Democrats didn’t want to have to cast a vote on these issues with an election just weeks away. This way, they can simply pay lip service to the issues.”