Bill to abolish death penalty gets go-ahead

By Steve Terrell: The Santa Fe New Mexican

With shaking hands and a quivering voice, a Las Vegas, N.M., woman
whose son was executed by the state of Texas asked the New Mexico House
of Representatives on Thursday to end capital punishment in this state.

Though committee members’ minds probably were made up before Muina
Arthur made her emotional plea, the House Consumer and Public Affairs
Committee voted 5-2 to give a do-pass recommendation to House Bill 285,
which would abolish the death penalty and replace it with life in
prison without possibility of parole.

“I am the survivor of a murder victim,” Arthur told the panel.
“When Texas murdered him, it altered my life. … My family, my
friends, my community all have been damaged. It was because of his
execution.”

Karl Eugene Chamberlain, one of Arthur’s nine children, was put to
death by lethal injection in Texas on June 11, 2008. His mother said
Thursday her son was guilty. According to online Texas Department of
Criminal Justice records, Chamberlain was convicted of raping and
killing Felecia Prechtl, a 30-year-old neighbor in Dallas, in 1991. He
was just a few days shy of his 38th birthday when he was put to death.

Chamberlain spent much of his childhood in Northern New Mexico, Arthur said.

She said it was extremely difficult coming to grips with the fact her son had committed such a horrible crime.

Her son’s crimes and his execution took a terrible toll on her own
life, Arthur said. Her marriage fell apart and, she said, “I was a
patient in the state hospital (in Las Vegas) several times during the
continuing ordeal.”

Several others spoke against the death penalty. These included
Andrea Vigil, whose husband Carlos Vigil, a Santa Fe criminal lawyer,
was murdered on his way to the county courthouse in 1999, and Allen
Sanchez, director of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, who
quoted Mother Teresa.

The committee’s vote — a straight-party vote with Democrats voting
yes and Republicans voting no — was no surprise. The committee has
given the bill the go-ahead whenever it has been introduced in at least
the last nine sessions.

In recent years, the entire House has passed the bill only to have it die in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

However, bill sponsor Rep. Gail Chasey, Albuquerque, said after the
vote that she’s confident the bill will make it through Senate
Judiciary this year.

Even if it passes the Legislature, a big question remains whether
Gov. Bill Richardson would sign it. He has said in the past he supports
capital punishment. Advocates hope that since he no longer is running
for president, Richardson will have a change of heart.

Arthur said she recently ran into the governor at a local Indian
restaurant and asked him to sign Chasey’s bill. She said Richardson was
very courteous but only promised to “look at the bill” if the
Legislature passes it.

One area in which abolition advocates have lost allies is among
House Republicans. Four of six Republicans who voted for Chasey’s
death-penalty repeal bill in 2007 are no longer in the Legislature. Of
those six, only Larry Larranaga and Janice Arnold-Jones, both of
Albuquerque, still remain.

New Mexico has executed just one person since 1960, child killer and rapist Terry Clark, who was given lethal injection in 2001.

There currently are only two convicted murders on death row in New
Mexico: Robert Fry of Farmington and Timothy Allen of Bloomfield. Their
sentences wouldn’t be affected even if HB 285 is signed into law.

Contact Steve Terrell at 986-3037 or sterrell@sfnewmexican.com.