Albuquerque Journal writer Leslie Linthicum writes "Closing the N.M. Death Penalty Door." The death penalty has been repealed, but two capital trials may yet take place for crimes committed before the new law took effect. Linthicum's column appeared in the Thursday edition. Here's an extended excerpt:
The state of New Mexico launched a diet Wednesday, cutting out death sentences for murders from our moral menu. But it's possible we'll sneak in one more binge.
It's one of those situations that make perfect sense and no sense. Let's see how we got here.
Earlier this year, the New Mexico House and then the Senate decided it was time for New Mexico to stop killing people for killing people. The governor mulled it over and ultimately signed the bill that wipes away the death penalty and replaces it with a prison sentence that lasts until the prisoner dies.
Here's where the problem lies. Two murder defendants in New Mexico currently face the death penalty in cases that began before the Legislature acted to repeal the law. Michael Astorga is accused of fatally shooting a Bernalillo County sheriff's deputy during a traffic stop, and William Watson is accused of hiring someone else to kill a Roosevelt County rancher.
The New Mexico Constitution bars state lawmakers from passing laws that are retroactive, so Astorga and Watson can be subject to the death penalty. The Salvadoran gangsters who are accused of shooting up a Denny's in Albuquerque and killing a cook a week before the capital punishment expiration date could also be tried and sentenced under the old law.
Then there are the two men currently on death row in New Mexico who also still face execution. Although Gov. Bill Richardson, who signed the death penalty repeal, says he wouldn't consider commuting their sentences, a future governor could.
One, two, three, four or more executions? That's an awful lot of capital punishment for a state that's sworn off it.
Bernalillo County District Attorney Kari Brandenburg tells me prosecutors really have no choice. Only now that the death penalty has expired, is it replaced with a true life-in-prison sentence? If she or any other prosecutor were to drop the death penalty option for those older cases, the harshest sentence a jury could hand down for a murder would be 30 years in prison, and she doesn't want that to happen.
If a true life-in-prison sentence were available now, Brandenburg says, it might very well change how she thinks about prosecuting Astorga. She says she's never been much of a fan of the death penalty because it doesn't work well as a deterrent to criminals.