By Sharna Johnston: Freedom Newspapers
A Clovis dentist facing the death penalty in connection with the 2005 slaying of a Clovis mother has reached a plea agreement that will send him to prison for at least 57 years.
In a barely audible voice from his seat at the defense table, James Smith answered “yes” as the judge read the terms of the Alford agreement made with prosecutors.
Alford is a plea in which a defendant does not admit guilt but acknowledges sufficient evidence exists to convince a judge or jury of guilt.
Under the terms of the agreement, 9th Judicial District Judge Joe Parker said Smith will be sentenced to life in prison plus 27 years.
At a minimum he will serve 57 years in the New Mexico Department of Corrections before he is eligible for parole, Parker told onlookers as he read the agreement.
Smith, 37, will also be required to pay restitution to provide counseling for the children of the victim, Laura McNaughton, Parker said.
A single mother of two, McNaughton’s body was found in a rural ditch by hunters on Dec. 10, 2005.
She died of strangulation, records show.
A sentencing hearing will be held at 2 p.m. today so family members can make impact statements to the court before the sentence is formally imposed, Parker said.
Smith entered the Alford plea to charges of first-degree murder, kidnapping in the first degree, attempted sexual penetration and tampering with evidence, Parker said.
He was indicted on charges of first-degree murder, kidnapping, sexual penetration and three counts of tampering with evidence last year following his arrest.
Tuesday’s announcement came just after 10 a.m.
Motion arguments were scheduled to be held in the case today in preparation for a June jury trial.
Looking to show probable cause a kidnapping and sexual assault occurred, two of the aggravated factors required to seek the death penalty, prosecutors presented testimony in a hearing Monday, seeking the judge’s consent to pursue the death penalty.
After hearing evidence of blood found in Smith’s vehicle and forensic testimony that McNaughton was brutally beaten, Parker found there was probable cause to proceed with a death penalty case.
Summarizing his case to satisfy court protocol, District Attorney Matt Chandler told Parker today, “It is the state’s position that we could provide evidence and testimony that this was a planned, willful, premeditated murder of Laura McNaughton.”
Defense attorney Mark Earnest addressed Parker, confirming on behalf of his client, that he agreed to the terms of the plea.
“We believe that there is enough of a factual basis to find (Smith) guilty,” he said.