James Smith signs a plea agreement Tuesday morning, while CO-Counsel for defense Rebecca Reese,left, looks on. CNJ staff photo: Tony Bullocks
By Sharna Johnson: CNJ Staff
Editor’s note: Content in this report may be offensive to some readers.
Laura McNaughton’s family had strong words for the Clovis woman’s convicted killer during a sentencing hearing Tuesday at the Curry County Courthouse.
Maria Beardmore, the victim’s mother, asked defense counsel to move so she could see James Smith as she addressed him.
“You took a beautiful life,” she said. “I don’t know what made you commit such a violent crime — I don’t know what happened to you. When did you change — 21, 22? You don’t have the opportunity to be called a doctor any more — you are just a killer and a rapist and a predator.”
Smith, who will spend at least 57 years in prison as part of a plea agreement, stared ahead, avoiding eye contact with her as she hurled angry statements his direction.
“I don’t understand you. You know, a man is supposed to be given an upper strength and the strength in his body to protect a woman. And did you protect Laura that night? You used it for your advantage. You beat her to death. A man is supposed to protect his wife. Did you protect your wife that night and your children? Look where you left your own children — where you left my grandchildren,” she said. “Why don’t you step up to the plate and admit what you did?”
Smith, 37, was married with three children at the time of McNaughton’s death in December 2005.
McNaughton’s father, David Beardmore, called Smith a “psychopath” and said “to all those that knew Laura, she will be sorely missed. Today will be the first chapter on your way to hell. We will never forgive you or at least I won’t. You crossed the line and now you have to pay the price.”
When family members continued to direct emotional and angry statements at Smith, 9th Judicial District Judge Joe Parker instructed them to direct their statements to the court, not Smith.
Family described McNaughton, 30, as a beautiful woman and mother who was attempting to better her life and that of her daughters.
David Beardmore read an excerpt from a college essay McNaughton had written about a month before her death as she was looking toward receiving an associate’s degree.
“There were many times I wanted to give up the fight, but surprisingly there was always one more fight left in me,” she wrote, describing her life as a working student and single mother.
Jeff McNaughton, Laura’s former husband, said the worst night of his life was when he had to tell his children their mother was dead. “I watched them cry so hard their faces swelled up,” he said.
Maddie McNaughton, 12, told Smith in a videotape played for the court that her 6-year-old sister was not going to remember their mom.
District Attorney Matt Chandler addressed Parker prior to sentencing.
“The last thing (Laura) saw before she met her maker was this man’s face. I believe it is quite possible she blocked out James Smith’s eyes as he looked into her face and she pictured her family — her children.”
The sentencing followed Smith’s agreement to enter an Alford plea in which a defendant does not admit guilt but acknowledges sufficient evidence exists to convince a judge or jury of guilt.
Under the terms of the agreement, Judge Parker said Smith will be sentenced to life in prison plus 27 years.
At a minimum he will serve 57 years in the New Mexico Department of Corrections before he is eligible for parole, Parker told onlookers as he read the agreement.
Smith will also be required to pay restitution to provide counseling for the children of the victim, Parker said.
A single mother of two, McNaughton’s body was found in a rural ditch by hunters on Dec. 10, 2005.
She died of strangulation, records show.
The Alford agreement was reached just after 10 a.m. Tuesday. A full day of motion arguments had been scheduled in the case in preparation for a June jury trial.
Smith entered the Alford plea to charges of first-degree murder, kidnapping in the first degree, attempted sexual penetration and tampering with evidence, Parker said.
He was indicted on charges of first-degree murder, kidnapping, sexual penetration and three counts of tampering with evidence last year following his arrest.
Looking to show probable cause a kidnapping and sexual assault occurred, two of the aggravated factors required to seek the death penalty, prosecutors presented testimony in a hearing Monday, seeking the judge’s consent to pursue the death penalty.
After hearing evidence of blood found in Smith’s vehicle and forensic testimony that McNaughton was brutally beaten, Parker found there was probable cause to proceed with a death penalty case.
Summarizing his case to satisfy court protocol, Chandler told Parker Tuesday, “It is the state’s position that we could provide evidence and testimony that this was a planned, willful, premeditated murder of Laura McNaughton.”
Defense attorney Mark Earnest addressed Parker, confirming on behalf of his client, that he agreed to the terms of the plea agreement.
“We believe that there is enough of a factual basis to find (Smith) guilty,” he said.
Attempts to reach Smith’s family were unsuccessful.