Attorney Mitchell has unenviable job

I’d rather shovel muck at the Farmington race track.

I’d rather be the guy who logs Gov. Bill’s flight miles, even though it has to be a backbreaking job.

I’d rather be the doctor who says to the teenager, “Sorry, young lady, the test’s positive.”

Just don’t make me be Gary Mitchell. In some circles, this guy is about as popular as an Amish preacher at a nudist colony. You just know he has to look around sometimes and feel as lonely as Jessica Simpson at a think tank reunion.

Gary Mitchell is an attorney. He lives in southern New Mexico but offices in thugland. Gary represents criminal defendants, mostly those who strike fear in the hearts of fellow human beings. Read your local paper and if the first paragraph describes a really vicious crime, the fourth graph will tell you Gary Mitchell is the defendant’s attorney of record.

Mitchell’s latest and perhaps most infamous client is one Michael Paul Astorga. He was the target of a massive, 24/7, two-week manhunt that finally unearthed the alleged cop killer from a dung heap in Juarez.

The cops claim to have plenty of evidence to prove Astorga was the guy who shot a sheriff’s deputy during an early morning traffic stop in Tijeras on March 22. He is also charged with a second murder in November.

(As an aside, and one that must be noted, Bernalillo deputies had to scurry around to El Paso ATM machines to pony up enough cash from their personal accounts to pay Mexico officials $2,000 bail to get Astorga released to their custody. One might think, with the U.S. now debating the fate of millions of illegal immigrants, Mexico might consider an attitude adjustment.)

It is easy to hate this alleged cop killer and not much more difficult to work up righteous disdain for Gary Mitchell who represents the Michael Astorgas of this world.

So why does Mitchell do it? Why does he always seem to be standing next to crud most of New Mexico would rather be wiping from her boots? He does it because he is unshakably, inalterably, passionately opposed to the death penalty. And I respect him for having the guts to fight for his deeply held convictions, however unpopular they might be with fellow New Mexicans.

Ask your neighbor if the system should kill Michael Astorga and he is likely to wonder, “Do we have to wait for a trial?”

Even the governor is waffling on this one. Ordinarily not a death penalty advocate, Bill Richardson said the killing of a police officer doing his duty calls for “the ultimate punishment.”

“In rare situations,” Richardson said, “the death penalty is the appropriate penalty. This is one of those cases.”

Richardson’s fence straddling strikes a chord with many of us who oppose the death penalty. I am against it, but … Trouble is, there are no “buts.” If you favor “the ultimate punishment,” fight for it. If you find it morally repugnant, fight against it.

There will always be people who use the tools of society to kill other people, and they will do it with passion. Such is their right. There will be others, like Gary Mitchell, who use the tools of society to protect fellow citizens from death. That’s his right, too.

For my part, I feel fortunate that I am just the guy who writes columns about it. Don’t make me be Gary Mitchell.

Syndicated columnist Ned Cantwell welcomes response at: