(Reuters) – The New Mexico Supreme Court on Friday vacated the death sentences of the last two inmates awaiting execution in a state that abolished capital punishment a decade ago, ordering both men to be re-sentenced to life in prison.
In a 3-2 decision, the court’s majority concluded the death sentences pending against convicted killers Timothy Allen and Robert Fry were unlawful because they were disproportionately harsh compared with penalties imposed in similar murder cases.
New Mexico repealed capital punishment in 2009, but Allen and Fry’s death sentences remained intact because they were convicted and sentenced years earlier.
Even before repeal, executions were rare in New Mexico. In more than half a century, the state has put only one person to death – Terry Clark, by lethal injection in 2001 for the kidnapping, rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl.
Allen, 55, was condemned for the kidnapping, attempted rape and murder of 17-year-old Sandra Phillips in 1994, according to a synopsis of the case from the state’s Administrative Office of Courts.
Fry, 45, was sentenced to death for fatally stabbing and bludgeoning Betty Lee, a mother of five, in 2000. Fry was separately sentenced to life in prison for three other murders in 1996 and 1998, the courts office said.
After the state abolished the death penalty 10 years ago, the two men raised that issue in separate sentencing appeals that were ultimately combined and heard as a single case by the state Supreme Court.
Comparing their crimes to “other equally horrendous cases in which defendants were not sentenced to death, we find no meaningful distinction which justifies imposing the death sentence upon Fry and Allen,” the court’s majority wrote in its 144-page opinion.
The decision sends both cases back to the trial-level court in New Mexico’s San Juan county to impose new sentences of life imprisonment.
In a dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Nakamura Judith said the state legislature’s repeal of the death penalty was meant only to apply to murders committed after July 2009, and that the court’s majority was effectively going beyond that mandate.
Under state sentencing laws, convicted felons are eligible for parole after serving 30 years of a life term. But Fry will never be eligible for release because he faces a minimum of 120 years for all four of his first-degree murder convictions, the justices said.
Allen faces an additional 25 years behind bars after serving his murder sentence, according to the state courts office.
Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Robert Birsel