"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." - Oscar Wilde

Saturday, August 20, 2016

New Mexico lawmakers to weigh costs of reinstating death penalty

New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez
New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez
The "ultimate penalty," as Gov. Susana Martinez has called it, does not come cheap.

The high cost and slow process of prosecuting capital cases likely will be central to the debate over reinstating the death penalty after Martinez's announcement this week that she will push to restore capital punishment during the 2017 legislative session.

New Mexico used the death penalty sparingly during the period when it was last legal, handing down about a dozen death sentences and executing one inmate between 1979 and 2009, when lawmakers and Gov. Bill Richardson abolished it. Analyzing the costs of capital punishment, legislative staffers in 2009 wrote, "New Mexico does not receive much return on its death penalty investment."

The report said fewer than 1/4 of all capital prosecutions in the state led to a prisoner on death row. Fewer than 1/2 of the cases led to a death sentence, and 68 % of those were overturned on appeal.

Death penalty cases require heightened standards for defense attorneys, the report said, with at least 2 lawyers at each stage of the proceedings, trial-level litigation and mandatory appeals. Jury selection is particularly long and arduous in such cases, the report added, costing at least 4 times as much as other 1st-degree murder cases.

The only person executed in New Mexico between 1979 and 2009 was Terry D. Clark, who was put to death in 2001 for the rape and murder of a 9-year-old Roswell girl in 1986. The state brought in 2 "execution experts" from the Texas prison system for Clark's execution, the 1st in New Mexico since 1960.

"There is only a 4.5 % chance that any multi-million dollar death penalty prosecution will ever end in an execution in New Mexico," the legislative report said.

It's also unclear whether the state could navigate the logistical hurdles to carrying out an execution.

The state's prison system does not have a supply of the drugs typically used to carry out lethal injections, according to Alex Sanchez, deputy secretary for administrative support at the Corrections Department.

Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said finding the necessary drugs now could be complicated, with major pharmaceutical companies and many pharmacies refusing to sell their products for use in executions.

"That narrows who you can get the drugs from. The fear has been that executions are likely to be even more unsafe and even more prone to being botched if the drugs are obtained from compounding pharmacies," Dunham said, referring to the drug-manufacturing companies that have become the last resort for states in short supply of pharmaceuticals required for executions.

2 men sentenced to death in New Mexico prior to 2009 are still on death row.

Timothy Allen was sentenced to death in 1995 for kidnapping, attempting to rape and then killing a 17-year-old Flora Vista girl.

Robert Fry was sentenced to death in 2002 for the murder of Betty Lee, a 36-year-old Shiprock woman. He also is serving life sentences for the 1996 killings of Farmington residents Joseph Fleming, 25, and Matthew Trecker, 18, as well as the 1998 murder of 41-year-old Donald Tsosie of Ganado, Ariz.

Fry and Allen are incarcerated in the same tightly controlled conditions designated for inmates sentenced to life without the possibility of parole - a sentence that replaced the death penalty when it was abolished. No one is currently serving such a sentence in a New Mexico prison.


"Capital punishment is clearly a very expensive process."
"Capital punishment is clearly a very expensive process."
Sanchez said the New Mexico Corrections Department would be capable of carrying out an execution and that reinstating the death penalty would change little for the state's prison system. "There would be no difference in housing, no difference in treatment," she said. "It would just be a matter of carrying out the execution."

But the cases of Fry and Allen illustrate the long process of carrying out a death sentence. Lawyers representing the men went before the New Mexico Supreme Court as recently as 2014, asking the state's highest judicial body stop their executions in light of the death penalty's abolition.

Their cases are still pending, and the Law Office of the Public Defender recently asked the state Supreme Court to authorize additional funding to pay the men's lawyers.

"Capital punishment is clearly a very expensive process. It adds costs for law enforcement, for prosecution, for the courts, and it adds tremendous costs to provide effective assistance of counsel," said Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur.

Death penalty cases require specialized skills, he said.

Baur also noted that state agencies are facing budget cuts. Public defenders, as well as prosecutors and others in the criminal justice system, would be forced to do more with less if capital punishment were reinstated, he said.

"In the time of flat budgets - or worse - there are things you cannot do," he said. "There are cases that cannot be prosecuted and cases that cannot be defended."

The political prospects of reinstating the death penalty remain unclear and are likely to shift with the outcome of the Nov. 8 general election.

The New Mexican contacted several state lawmakers to ask if they would sponsor legislation to restore capital punishment. Only 1, Republican Rep. Andy Nunez of Hatch, responded.

Nunez, who represents the district in Southern New Mexico where a police officer was gunned down last week, said Thursday he will sponsor a bill to reinstate the death penalty if Martinez asks him.

"I agree with her," Nunez said. "My wife's not for it, but I am."

Martinez did not specify Wednesday how broadly she believes the death penalty should be applied. But her comments signaled she is interested in at least allowing capital punishment for the murders of children and law enforcement officers. She mentioned slain Hatch Police Department Officer Jose Chavez in her remarks.

Nunez said such a scope is appropriate. While he supported repealing the death penalty in 2009, Nunez said Thursday he feels he was "misled."

He thought the death penalty would be replaced with a sentence of life without parole, he said, but with no one receiving such a sentence, he suggested that inmates who might have qualified for the death penalty when it was legal might now be receiving sentences allowing their eventual release.

Asked if the state can afford to undertake executions and the accompanying lengthy court battles, Nunez said: "They can afford that better than setting them in prison."

Source: Santa Fe New Mexican, August 19, 2016

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