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Trial by Fire - Did Texas execute an innocent man?

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The fire moved quickly through the house, a one-story wood-frame structure in a working-class neighborhood of Corsicana, in northeast Texas. Flames spread along the walls, bursting through doorways, blistering paint and tiles and furniture. Smoke pressed against the ceiling, then banked downward, seeping into each room and through crevices in the windows, staining the morning sky.
Buffie Barbee, who was eleven years old and lived two houses down, was playing in her back yard when she smelled the smoke. She ran inside and told her mother, Diane, and they hurried up the street; that’s when they saw the smoldering house and Cameron Todd Willingham standing on the front porch, wearing only a pair of jeans, his chest blackened with soot, his hair and eyelids singed. He was screaming, “My babies are burning up!” His children—Karmon and Kameron, who were one-year-old twin girls, and two-year-old Amber—were trapped inside.
Willingham told the Barbees to call the Fire Department, and while Dia…

Despite fiscal crisis, several crime bills raised anew in New Mexico legislature

Despite a Democratic-controlled Legislature, which historically in New Mexico hasn't taken up a tough-on-crime mantle, a handful of bills have been introduced to toughen punishments - including a reintroduction of the death penalty in certain cases.

Many of the bills pre-filed before the start of the session Tuesday are repeats from the last 2 years, when Republicans had control of the House and were able to give the bills some traction before most died in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

Gov. Susana Martinez has expressed support for the death penalty for convicted cop and child killers and "3-strikes" laws, but some lawmakers warn the state's funding crisis will make it more difficult to pass them.

"Even in affluent years, there is always a discussion about money. Increased penalties cost money to house prisoners, but when you go ahead and talk to the community, the community does not feel safe," said Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque.

There were numerous high-profile crimes in the last 2 years, including the killing of 4 New Mexico law enforcement officers, the shooting death of a young Albuquerque girl caught in a road rage incident, and the shooting death of an innocent bystander, a popular Albuquerque teen, at a party.

Critics of increased penalties say financial concerns are valid and point to studies that say increased penalties don't show a deterrent effect on crime - especially the death penalty.

One of the largest studies of the deterrent effect of tougher penalties shows that the strength of the penalty has less effect, if any, than the certainty of receiving a punishment, and deterrent effects are greater on minor crimes and much less for serious crimes.

"The tendency is to increase penalties as a form of public policy, and it simply doesn't deter crime, and it adds stress to an already stressed system," said Rep. Antonio "Mo" Maestas, D-Albuquerque. "We need evidence-based policies to ultimately lessen the crime."

He is particularly opposed to the death penalty, which is a very expensive process, but he said even less expensive policies like the 3-strikes laws are also expensive - and outdated.

Governor's agenda


In a speech earlier this month to Albuquerque business leaders, the governor called on lawmakers to pass bills increasing penalties for child abuse and driving while intoxicated and reimpose the death penalty - which the state abolished in 2009 - for individuals convicted of killing children or law enforcement officers.

"We should give prosecutors and juries the option to impose it," she said.

But Martinez did not mention how the stiffer penalties would be funded, as her proposed $6.1 billion budget plan for the coming year would extend budget cuts for the state's judicial branch and provide only a small funding increase for the state's prison system.

Legislators can propose bills until about halfway through the session, Feb. 16 this year.

So far, Rehm, a former sheriff's deputy, and House Minority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, together have filed half of all crime-related bills.

The 2 have doubled up on bills that would expand the state's 3-strikes law, adding to the current list of crimes applicable for the enhancement.

The 3-strikes law allows prosecutors to seek a mandatory sentence of life in prison, which in New Mexico is 30 years without the chance for parole.

Gentry's bill, House Bill 54, is the version passed by the House last year. It would remove the requirement that the convictions be for crimes that caused great bodily harm, meaning prosecutors could try to get a habitual offender enhancement for some of the defendant's previous felonies even if no one was seriously injured.

The bill also would add to the list of qualifying charges, among others, involuntary manslaughter, shooting at a building, homicide by vehicle, aggravated arson or battery on a police officer, and injury to a pregnant woman by vehicle.

Rehm's bill, House Bill 13, retains the requirement that any qualifying crimes have resulted in someone's great bodily harm, and it would add some but not as many charges as Gentry's for consideration.

"Mine is more restrictive. He's casting a wider net," Rehm said.

Source: Albuquerque Journal, January 22, 2017

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