At least a few Republican lawmakers are babbling about the need for a special legislative session to crack down on crime.
They should be required to take a New Mexico history class. No ancient history either. They just need to study the legislative gaps of the past five years.
In 2016, with the approach of general elections, the government of the day. Susana Martinez called a special session at a cost of over $ 50,000 per day. One of the goals was to balance the state budget at a time of declining income.
Martinez, a Republican who built her reputation in politics as a prosecutor, also praised what she described as anti-crime legislation. In translation, the session was an opportunity to get Democrats to oppose the reinstatement of the death penalty.
Republicans controlled the state House of Representatives for the first time in 62 years. They hoped that advocating for the death penalty would help them in disadvantaged neighborhoods.
The GOP knew it would be easy to get the death penalty bill passed in the House. Republicans were just as certain the measure would be buried in the Democrat-controlled Senate. There were good reasons to resist.
New Mexico sent four innocent men to death row in the 1970s for the murder of a college student in Bernalillo County. Memories of this parody of justice have remained fresh on Capitol Hill.
The convicted inmates, most of whom were from Michigan, were cleared after 17 months in prison. An investigation of the Detroit News helped to free them. The New called the New Mexico lawsuit an “incredible story of false testimony, coercion of witnesses and trials by community opinion.”
Many years later, in 2009, New Mexico abolished the death penalty. Martinez wanted to bring him back, seeing him as a bargaining chip to get guilty pleas.
Even though it was clear from the outset of the special session that the death penalty would not return to New Mexico, House Republicans still went through the empty and expensive exercise of pressing the measure.
A three-hour debate began before dawn, while most people were asleep. House members voted 36-30 to reduce the death sentences.
Catholic Archbishop John C. Wester walked onto Capitol Hill shortly after to denounce the bill and the way House Republicans had orchestrated its passage.
Senators killed the death penalty bill by ignoring it. In turn, voters recognized the death penalty proposal as a political maneuver rather than a carefully crafted bill. Democrats increased their advantage in the Senate and regained control of the House in the election.
Villains can and do land on death row in other states. But mistakes made by police, prosecutors and defense lawyers have been common enough that New Mexicans are wary of reactivating the death penalty, especially during a politically charged special session.
Can-Rep. Monica Youngblood, R-Albuquerque, defended her sponsorship of the death penalty bill. She said the cops wouldn’t be wrong like they did in the ’70s case that sent innocent men to death row in New Mexico.
Youngblood would change his view that the police were infallible. An Albuquerque officer arrested her in 2018 on suspicion of aggravated drunk driving. Youngblood said the officer had treated her unfairly, a complaint she claimed many other people of color had brought against police.
A judge convicted Youngblood and voters ousted her shortly after.
With all the infighting over the death penalty, both political parties have wasted the opportunity to pass a meaningful criminal justice bill.
The statute of limitations for second degree murder in New Mexico is six years. It is a strange and untenable law.
DNA evidence can revive decades-old cold cases. The six-year statute of limitations for second degree murder could help killers avoid prosecution.
Several Republicans and Democrats have tried to pass a bill removing the six-year limitation. Their proposals have failed seven times in the past decade.
Republican leaders in the House of Representatives have said the bill could be resurrected if a special session takes place this year. They might as well wait for the regular 30-day session starting in early 2022.
Members of the House could craft a bipartisan proposal and then spend the interim blocking Senate support. The bill could be accelerated once the regular session has started. It’s a simple proposition that’s been heard so many times that even first-year lawmakers know it.
Special legislative sessions usually waste time, money and political capital. Better to save the crime bills for the fresh snow in January, when the possibility of cooperation was not dismissed as an illusion.
Ringside Seat is an opinion piece on people, politics and current affairs. Contact Milan Simonich at [email protected] or 505-986-3080.