Death penalty repeal heads to Judiciary panel

By Steve Terrell: The New Mexican

The bill that would abolish capital punishment in New Mexico cleared another hurdle Tuesday when it got a do-pass recommendation on a 5-2 party-line vote in the Senate Public Affairs Committee.

Senate Bill 285, sponsored by Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albquerque, now goes to Senate Judiciary, which is considered the real test for the bill. In recent sessions, death-penalty abolition bills have died in Senate Judiciary.

Opponents of the bill outnumbered supporters at the meeting.

Only person spoke against the bill, District Attorney Janetta Hicks of the Fifth Judicial District. She noted that she represents the district in which the last person executed in New Mexico, Terry Clark, raped and murdered 9-year-old Dena Lynn Gore of Artesia. Clark was executed in 2001 for the 1986 crime.

David Keys, a professor of criminology at New Mexico State University, told the committee that even though there has only been one execution in New Mexico since 1960, taxpayers pay about $2.75 million a year for death-penalty cases. Most of that, he said, is for attorneys, psychiatrists and other court expenses.

In response to arguments that there would be similar expenses if the state creates the life-without-possibility-of-parole sentence, Keys said he would expect judges to keep appeals going for those receiving that sentence.

“If someone’s life is on the line, it’s different,” he told a reporter before the hearing. “When lives aren’t in danger there’s not the necessary vigilance you see in death-penalty cases.”

Keys also said capital punishment is no deterrent to crime. “People in interrogation rooms know that only one percent of those convicted of first-degree murder are ever going to go to the death chamber,” he said.

Even though it wasn’t discussed at the committee hearing, senators last week received a letter from Ron Keine, who was sentenced to death in a sensational Albuquerque murder case in 1974.

“Although innocent, I was nearly executed,” Keine wrote. “I was pronounced guilty by 12 men and women who had no reasonable doubt in their mind that I committed a particularly brutal and atrocious murder of a 26-year-old man, William Velten. I am among the ranks of 130 exonerated men and women in the United States who were almost put to death in error.”

Keine is one of the four members of the California-based Vagos motorcycle gang who spent 22 months on death row. He and his co-defendants were freed only after the real murderer, Kerry Rodney Lee, confessed after a religious conversion. Keine and the other convicted Vagos members spent 22 months on death row until after Lee’s confession. In a 2005 interview, Keine said he was close enough to being put in a gas chamber that an assistant warden came to talk to him about what he wanted for his last meal.

He’s the last of the four convicted Vagos members still alive.

Keine, who lives in Sterling Heights, Mich. told a reporter Tuesday that he’d like to come to New Mexico to personally testify about his experience but can’t because of economic reasons.

In the interview, Keine, who is a past chairman of the Clinton Township, Mich., Republican Party, said “I’m disappointed that more Republicans haven’t supported this bill.” When the bill was debated in the House last month, four of the 25 House Republicans voted for it. But in committee votes in recent years, no Republican senators have voted to abolish the death penalty.

“Most of the 130 exonerees were not freed by the system, but in spite of it,” Keine wrote in his letter to senators. “They were saved by pure luck, usually when outside sources for one reason or another took up their plight.“

Voting in favor of the do-pass recommendation for SB285 were Sen. Mary Jane Garcia, D-Dona Ana; Sen. Cynthia Nava, D-Las Cruces; and Sens. Tim Eichenberg, Dede Feldman and Sen. Eric Griego, all Albuquerque Democrats.

Voting against the bill were Sen. Vern Asbill, R-Carlsbad, and Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs.

Absent from the meeting were Sens. Mark Boitano and George Munoz.

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