By Sharna Johnson: Freedom New Mexico
Even though the death penalty was repealed in New Mexico, a Roosevelt County farmer accused of arranging a murder-for-hire still faces possible execution.
Prosecutors filed a notice of intent to seek the death penalty against William “Billy Joe” Watson last August.
Watson is accused of conspiring with the Aryan Brotherhood in the 2005 shooting death of Jimmy Bo Chunn.
And though the governor signed a repeal of the death penalty Thursday, Watson is still facing possible execution because of a grandfather clause that allows the death penalty for crimes committed prior to July 1.
Chunn, 71, was shot in his home around July 4, 2005.
The issue has set the stage for a debate over Watson’s life between defense attorney Gary Mitchell and the state.
A hearing is scheduled for April 8 and 9 in district court in Portales, to determine if probable cause exists that one of seven aggravating circumstances occurred to justify seeking the death penalty against the 44-year-old.
Murder-for-hire is a qualifying factor for the death penalty.
Mitchell said Tuesday he was already arguing against the constitutionality of the death penalty and that it was inappropriate to use against Watson, who even the state acknowledges was not the trigger man in the shooting.
But with the repeal of the death penalty, to exercise it against Watson would amount to selective execution, he said.
Mitchell said he plans to file a motion arguing his objection to the clause in the repeal within the next few days. He said he hopes the district attorney’s office will see the moral contradiction and decide not to seek the death penalty in Watson’s case.
“When you do a repeal of the death penalty, you can’t repeal it for some and not for others, so it’s all encompassing,” Mitchell said.
“We have never said that the death penalty applies only to a segment of the community and right now we’re saying that … If it were based on race, creed or religion, the public would find this outrageous. You have it for all or you have it for no one.”
Watson is charged with conspiracy to commit first-degree murder.
Prosecutors have said he conspired with another Roosevelt County man, Donald Taylor, who they allege was a member of the Aryan Brotherhood.
Taylor is accused by federal authorities of carrying out the shooting and is also facing the death penalty under federal laws that remain in force.
Taylor was among a group of individuals allegedly connected to the Aryan Brotherhood and arrested by federal agents on racketeering and drug charges.
Prosecutors have alleged Watson and Taylor conspired to have Chunn killed in exchange for 500 pounds of anhydrous ammonia, an ingredient frequently used in farming as a fertilizer, but also used to manufacture methamphetamine.
“(Watson) paid the bill by providing the anhydrous ammonia to federal agents. That is a contract from beginning to end that resulted in the death of Mr. Chunn… We believe this is the classic case that the Legislature had in mind when they added murder for hire to the death penalty,” District Attorney Matt Chandler said.
“We’re certainly prepared to exercise the system to do what we can to bring the justice that the victim’s family feels is warranted in this case.”
Chandler said he, along with other prosecutors throughout the state lobbied against the legislature and the governor’s repeal of the death penalty because it is an important tool for prosecutors.
Chandler believes the death penalty finds justice for families. He also said it acts as a deterrent, providing safety to police and detention officers from inmates serving life sentences, who might otherwise have nothing to lose by committing another murder.
“This is an issue that I have questioned internally,” Chandler said. “I’ve talked to many law enforcement officers and many victims. And I’ve prayed over this issue and I firmly believe after speaking to those that have lost a loved one to a heinous, egregious murder that the death penalty should at least be an option for those families to exercise.
“My opinion comes after much thought and prayer and I feel very strongly about the way the law was on the books for the death penalty,” Chandler said.
Mitchell said the death penalty is nothing more than a tool prosecutors use to coerce defendants into plea bargains out of fear for their lives.
“The deep dark secret of the death penalty that nobody wants to talk about is it gives tremendous bargaining power to the government and it holds a gun to your head,” Mitchell said.
“My client is innocent of these charges and we intend to fight that, but it’s always a dangerous fight when the state says ‘if you lose we’re going to execute you.’ You’ve got to have a lot of willpower to proceed with your life on the line.”
Chandler said the 9th Judicial District Attorney’s office has, including Watson’s case, pursued the death penalty against four men since 2004.
Two of the men, James Smith and Jerry Fuller, pleaded guilty, and Stanley Bedford was convicted by a jury. All three are serving life sentences of more than 100 years in prison.
Having the death penalty as an option was highly instrumental in obtaining the high sentences against Smith and Fuller, Chandler said.
Executions in New Mexico: Since 1933, New Mexico has executed nine men. The most recent execution, in 2001, was the state’s first since 1960.
The death penalty’s repeal will not affect the two men currently on New Mexico’s death row or those convicted of qualifying crimes that occurred prior to July 1.