Milan Simonich

Ringside Seat

The late Thomas Ferguson received plenty of attention in high places he would never have considered visiting.

He could not have known how often legislators at the state Capitol debated changing various criminal statutes because of him.

Ferguson was a defendant in the torture and killing of 13-year-old Jeremiah Valencia in Santa Fe County.

Detectives believe Ferguson was so sadistic that he held Jeremiah in a plastic dog kennel. Trapped in a hell on earth, the boy wore adult diapers as part of the humiliation that went along with beatings. An autopsy revealed that Jeremiah was in a diaper when investigators found his body in a makeshift grave.

Jeremiah became a symbol of failings in the state’s corrections and child-welfare systems. And ex-con Ferguson provided fresh momentum for an initiative by Republican legislators who wanted to reinstate death sentences.

New Mexico lawmakers voted to repeal the death penalty in 2009, and then-Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, signed the bill into law.

For most of the last eight years, a handful of Republican lawmakers have introduced measures to revive death sentences for certain murderers, specifically those who kill police officers, prison guards or children.

Ferguson would have seemed to fit the bill, if only half of what police and prosecutors said about him was true. The natural impulse after Jeremiah’s body was discovered was to obtain justice for him by executing his killer. That wasn’t possible because the state no longer has a death penalty.

And once again last February, Democrats on a five-member committee in the House of Representatives blocked a bill for capital punishment.

It was a smart decision. I say that even though Ferguson seemed as unsympathetic and irredeemable as almost any defendant I’ve written about.

The biggest danger with states pursuing death sentences is not the interminable appeals or the astronomical costs, though both are worthy considerations.

Rather, the all-too-frequent occurrence of convicting an innocent person is the most compelling argument against death sentences.

Rep. Bob Wooley, R-Roswell, voted last winter to bring back the death penalty, even though he said he was conflicted about it. Like his friends in the other political party, Wooley said he had seen cases in which an innocent person landed on death row. That caused him to agonize, a sign that he took his work as a legislator seriously.

Wooley once listened to the testimony of Juan Melendez, who spent more than 17 years on death row in Florida for a murder he did not commit. Melendez later settled in Albuquerque. One quiet Sunday, he traveled by himself to the New Mexico Capitol to urge legislators not to bring back the death penalty.

One advocacy organization lists Melendez as the 24th innocent person to be released from Florida’s death row.

In some instances — a rush to judgment in a high-profile murder or credible but incorrect eyewitness testimony — the push for a death sentence becomes a runaway express.

New Mexico in the 1970s sent four innocent young bikers from Michigan to death row for the murder of a university student in Bernalillo County. The Detroit News investigated the case more thoroughly than prosecutors or sheriff’s officers had.

The News uncovered a key witness who perjured herself, lazy or corrupt cops and evidence that the men New Mexico sentenced to death had not even passed through the Albuquerque area, much less murdered the student.

Arkansas once sent an 18-year-old man to death row for the murders of three Cub Scouts. Two other teenagers received life sentences for those murders, all without a trace of physical evidence linking any of them to the crimes.

Many will say such blunders can no longer happen, given all the advances in criminal investigations. But the prosecutors in Arkansas fought against using DNA science as they continued insisting on the guilt of the defendants, who became known as the West Memphis Three.

Prosecutors rarely admit a mistake, especially in a capital case.

Like the bikers in New Mexico, the West Memphis Three finally walked free. But they served 18 years in prison that can never be recovered.

I won’t spend one second grieving for Thomas Ferguson. But I am glad the state of New Mexico did not kill him in the premeditated ritual of an execution.

His case might have seemed open and shut. Not every murder is, especially when emotions run so high that vengeance can overtake justice.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at or 505-986-3080.