By Rick White: CNJ managing editor
District Attorney Matt Chandler plans to pursue the death penalty against a former Clovis dentist accused of bludgeoning a woman to death.
Chandler said he will seek the death penalty against James Smith, 37, based on state statute and because New Mexico’s sentencing system does not include life without parole.
Smith is also charged with rape and kidnapping in connection with the death of Laura McNaughton, 30, whose naked, battered body was found by hunters Dec. 10 in a ditch near Pleasant Hill.
Under New Mexico law, anyone given a life sentence is eligible for parole in 30 years.
“First and foremost it’s my job to seek justice,” Chandler said. “I’ve taken an oath to uphold the law and procedures.”
Rape and kidnapping are two of five aggravated circumstances, when committed during a homicide, that allow the state to seek the death penalty in murder cases.
Chandler said he talked extensively with case investigators and the victim’s family before deciding to pursue the death sentence as an option.
“Ultimately, that’s for a jury to decide,” Chandler said.
Smith, who has been held without bail at the Curry County Detention Center since his arrest Dec. 20, is scheduled to appear in court today for a pre-trial hearing.
Chandler said pre-trial hearings help ensure the court proceedings proceed in a timely fashion.
Smith is scheduled to go on trial in October. the trial is expected to last as long as three weeks.
Meanwhile, Smith’s attorney, Stephen Doerr of Portales, filed notice in court March 1 reserving the defendant’s right to use lack of mental competency as a defense during his trial.
Doerr also asked the court to reserve the right for Smith to undergo a mental evaluation and the intent to call an expert witness on the issue.
Doerr did not return calls seeking comment.
Smith attempted suicide Dec. 13, after officials questioned him on McNaughton’s death the day before.
In a note to his wife, Smith denied killing McNaughton, court records show.