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State v. Chadwick-McNally

Supreme Court of New Mexico

February 22, 2018

STATE OF NEW MEXICO, Plaintiff-Appellee,


          Bennett J. Baur, Chief Public Defender Mary Barket, Assistant Appellate Defender Santa Fe, NM for Appellant

          Hector H. Balderas, Attorney General M. Victoria Wilson, Assistant Attorney General Santa Fe, NM for Appellee



         {¶1} Defendant Shanah Chadwick-McNally is charged with an open count of first-degree murder and faces a potential sentence of life without the possibility of release or parole (LWOP). She argues in this interlocutory appeal that, due to her possible LWOP sentence, she must be afforded the heightened procedural protections that apply when the State seeks the death penalty. See, e.g., Rule 5-704 NMRA (setting forth procedures that must be followed in death penalty cases).

         {¶2} We hold that death penalty procedures do not apply in this case for the simple reason that "[t]he extraordinary penalty of death" is not implicated. See, e.g., State v. Martinez, 2002-NMSC-008, ¶ 8, 132 N.M. 32, 43 P.3d 1042 ("The extraordinary penalty of death demands heightened scrutiny of its imposition."). Consequently, we agree with the district court that Rule 5-704 does not apply and that Defendant is not entitled to a hearing under State v. Ogden, 1994-NMSC-029, 118 N.M. 234, 880 P.2d 845, to test whether the alleged aggravating circumstances are supported by probable cause. We also agree that the Capital Felony Sentencing Act (the Act) as amended in 2009 neither requires nor prohibits bifurcated guilt and sentencing proceedings. NMSA 1978, §§ 31-20A-1 to -6 (1979, as amended through 2009). Lastly, we conclude that the Act precludes consideration of evidence of mitigating circumstances for sentencing purposes. We affirm and remand for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         {¶3} The State charged Defendant with an open count of first-degree murder, a "capital felony, " see NMSA 1978, § 30-2-1(A) (1994), and with one count each of first-degree kidnapping, robbery, and conspiracy to commit robbery. The charging document specifically alleged two aggravating circumstances related to the first-degree murder charge: (1) Defendant committed the murder with the intent to kill in the commission of or attempt to commit kidnapping, and (2) Defendant committed the murder for the purpose of preventing the victim from testifying about the crime. See § 31-20A-5 (setting forth seven aggravating circumstances for which a defendant found guilty of a capital felony shall be sentenced to LWOP under Section 31-20A-2).

         {¶4} The State later sought guidance about whether the procedures that apply in death penalty proceedings would be required in Defendant's case, in which the State is seeking an LWOP sentence. The State argued that death penalty procedures are inapplicable because Rule 5-704 applies only to death penalty cases and because the 2009 amendments to the Act repealed most of the procedural protections that had applied when the death penalty was in force, including bifurcated guilt and sentencing proceedings and the consideration of mitigating circumstances. The State conceded, however, that "prosecutors in other New Mexico judicial districts . . . have apparently been utilizing death penalty procedures and Rule 5-704 in LWOP cases."

         {¶5} After the pretrial conference, the district court issued an order holding that death penalty procedures do not apply in Defendant's case and that Defendant is precluded from presenting evidence of mitigating circumstances to the jury. The court also found that the order involved "a controlling question of law as to whether defendants in capital felony cases facing the possibility of life without parole should be afforded the procedural safeguards provided, under Rule 5-704 or other law, to defendants facing a possible death sentence."

         {¶6} Defendant filed an application for interlocutory appeal under Rule 12-203(A) NMRA, which we granted. We have jurisdiction under Article VI, Section 2 of the New Mexico constitution and NMSA 1978, Section 39-3-3(A)(3) (1972). See State v. Smallwood, 2007-NMSC-005, ¶ 11, 141 N.M. 178, 152 P.3d 821 (holding that this Court has "jurisdiction over interlocutory appeals in situations where a defendant may possibly be sentenced to life imprisonment or death").

          II. DISCUSSION

         {¶7} Our analysis proceeds in two parts. We first briefly review the 2009 amendments to the Act and Rule 5-704. We then address Defendant's arguments about the procedures that must be followed when the State seeks an LWOP sentence.

         A.The 2009 Amendments to the Act and ...

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