Sunday, January 29, 2012

Roundhouse Roundup: Letting the Clock Run on Murder

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican 
Jan. 29, 2012

It took eight years for Teri Johnson and Laura Bowman, two Albuquerque sisters, to find out what really happened to their brother, Michael Snyder. The two found out last week that it also might take a long time to convince the Legislature to take action to change a law they say created an injustice for their family.

Snyder, a mechanic who suffered from multiple sclerosis, had been missing since 2002. In 2010, thanks mainly to a tip from an informant, his body was found buried next to the house he had built for his family in Albuquerque. His wife, Ellen Snyder, was accused of killing him, burying the body and lying to police, claiming that Michael Snyder left his family after an argument.

However, prosecutors thought charging her with first-degree murder would be too risky, and the statute of limitations for second-degree murder is only six years. So, in a plea deal -- opposed by Johnson, Bowman and other family members -- Snyder pleaded last year to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 11 years in prison. She waived the statute of limitations on that charge. The sentence also includes time for lesser charges such as tampering with evidence and tax fraud.

Sen. Bill Payne, R-Albuquerque, is sponsoring a bill (Senate Bill 37) to eliminate the statute of limitations for any homicide. Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, is sponsoring the similar House Bill 31. Gov. Susana Martinez endorsed the legislation in her State of the State address.

Currently, there is no time limit in New Mexico for prosecuting first-degree murder cases. But that's not the case for all homicide charges.

But Payne's bill ran into trouble Thursday with the Senate Public Affairs Committee, which added amendments that Payne said waters it down.

The sisters expressed disappointment immediately following the hearing. "We don't want to send the message that if you're a clever enough criminal, you'll get away," Bowman said.

"It's disappointing to see opposition to something I thought was a no-brainer," Johnson said.

The bill was opposed by the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers, the American Civil Liberties Union and the New Mexico Women's Justice Project. Sheila Lewis of the latter group said eliminating statutes of limitations gives families of homicide victims false hopes and does not allow them to get "closure."

The sisters disagreed.

But following the meeting, they didn't seem to have much false hope about the prospects of the bill.

The main hang-up by some committee members was the fact that the statute of limitations would be lifted for homicides, including assisted suicide.

The committee adopted an amendment by Sen. Eric Griego, D-Albuquerque, to eliminate the statute of limitations on second-degree murder. But for the lesser crimes, manslaughter, vehicular homicide and assisted suicide, the statute of limitations would be raised from five years to 10 years.

Then the committee voted to pass an amendment by Sen. Tim Eichenberg, D-Albuquerque, to drop assisted suicides completely from the bill. The amended bill goes on to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The trouble with that, Payne said, is that in murder cases like Snyder's, when evidence comes in years later, defense lawyers will try to plea it down to some of the lesser crimes -- such as assisted suicide.

Payne said the statute of limitations could become an issue if the West Mesa murders ever go to court. Nobody has been charged in the killings of 11 women found in a mass grave on Albuquerque's West Mesa in 2009.

Most prosecutors, Payne argued, wouldn't attempt to try cases with weak evidence anyway. But in cases where the evidence is good, time shouldn't be a barrier, he said.

Though disappointed, the two sisters aren't giving up. "This affects everyone who walks the streets of New Mexico," Johnson said.