Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Parole Board Shakeup

On the first day I returned to work after recovering from my hip surgery I went up to an interim meeting of the Senate Rules Committee. Nothing exciting happened there. Most of the meeting consisted of hearing Gov. Susana Martinez's nominees for state Parole Board. None of these were controversial. The committee gave all nominees unanimous positive recommendations. To be truthful, it was pretty boring.
State Parole Board Chairwoman Sandy Dietz

But that 's only because I didn't know then what was going on the background. One of the board members who was confirmed that week was Mary Thompson, a Santa Fe counselor and former forensic evaluator who had been on the board since 2005. Gov. Martinez had nominated her for a second term.

What I didn't realize at the time was that Thompson was in an extremely bitter dispute with board chairwoman Sandy Deitz. About a week after the Rules Committee hearing, Thompson wrote Deitz a blistering letter that revealed not only a serious personality conflict, but a deep philosophical disagreement over one particular issue.

A state law enacted in 1980 says anyone sentenced to life in prison becomes eligible for parole after 30 years. First-degree murder is the only crime that carries a life sentence. (When the state repealed the death penalty in 2009, it created a new option for sentencing first-degree murder convicts: "life without possibility of parole.")

There's only about 10 "lifer" inmates have become eligible for parole hearings since 2010. Of those, only one was granted parole -- and that inmate already is back in prison.

Even though such inmates have a right to a parole hearing after 30 years, there's no guarantee they'll get such a hearing. Thompson accused Dietz of having a blanket policy of rejecting all parole requests from lifers. Dietz agreed that she's opposed all the requests that have come so far, but denied Thompson's charge that she was improperly manipulating the system to be sure all requests are denied.

Martinez removed Thompson from the board one day after Thompson sent the letter. The governor also fired longtime Parole Board executive director Ella Frank, who had the job for eight years.

My story about this is in today's New Mexican.