By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer
Even though the death penalty was repealed in New Mexico, a
Roosevelt County farmer accused of arranging a murder-for-hire still
faces possible execution.
Prosecutors filed a notice of intent to seek the death penalty against William “Billy Joe” Watson last August.
Watson is accused of conspiring with the Aryan Brotherhood in the 2005 shooting death of Jimmy Bo Chunn.
And though the governor signed a repeal of the death penalty
Thursday, Watson is still facing possible execution because of a
grandfather clause that allows the death penalty for crimes committed
prior to July 1.
Chunn, 71, was shot in his home around July 4, 2005.
The issue has set the stage for a debate over Watson’s life between defense attorney Gary Mitchell and the state.
A hearing is scheduled for April 8 and 9 in district court in
Portales, to determine if probable cause exists that one of seven
aggravating circumstances occurred to justify seeking the death penalty
against the 44-year-old.
Murder-for-hire is a qualifying factor for the death penalty.
Mitchell said Tuesday he was already arguing against the
constitutionality of the death penalty and that it was inappropriate to
use against Watson, who even the state acknowledges was not the trigger
man in the shooting.
But with the repeal of the death penalty, to exercise it against Watson would amount to selective execution, he said.
Mitchell said he plans to file a motion arguing his objection to the
clause in the repeal within the next few days. He said he hopes the
district attorney’s office will see the moral contradiction and decide
not to seek the death penalty in Watson’s case.
“When you do a repeal of the death penalty, you can’t repeal it for
some and not for others, so it’s all encompassing,” Mitchell said.
“We have never said that the death penalty applies only to a segment
of the community and right now we’re saying that … If it were based
on race, creed or religion, the public would find this outrageous. You
have it for all or you have it for no one.”
Watson is charged with conspiracy to commit first-degree murder.
Prosecutors have said he conspired with another Roosevelt County
man, Donald Taylor, who they allege was a member of the Aryan
Taylor is accused by federal authorities of carrying out the
shooting and is also facing the death penalty under federal laws that
remain in force.
Taylor was among a group of individuals allegedly connected to the
Aryan Brotherhood and arrested by federal agents on racketeering and
Prosecutors have alleged Watson and Taylor conspired to have Chunn
killed in exchange for 500 pounds of anhydrous ammonia, an ingredient
frequently used in farming as a fertilizer, but also used to
“(Watson) paid the bill by providing the anhydrous ammonia to
federal agents. That is a contract from beginning to end that resulted
in the death of Mr. Chunn… We believe this is the classic case that
the Legislature had in mind when they added murder for hire to the
death penalty,” District Attorney Matt Chandler said.
“We’re certainly prepared to exercise the system to do what we can
to bring the justice that the victim’s family feels is warranted in
Chandler said he, along with other prosecutors throughout the state
lobbied against the legislature and the governor’s repeal of the death
penalty because it is an important tool for prosecutors.
Chandler believes the death penalty finds justice for families. He
also said it acts as a deterrent, providing safety to police and
detention officers from inmates serving life sentences, who might
otherwise have nothing to lose by committing another murder.
“This is an issue that I have questioned internally,” Chandler said.
“I’ve talked to many law enforcement officers and many victims. And
I’ve prayed over this issue and I firmly believe after speaking to
those that have lost a loved one to a heinous, egregious murder that
the death penalty should at least be an option for those families to
“My opinion comes after much thought and prayer and I feel very
strongly about the way the law was on the books for the death penalty,”
Mitchell said the death penalty is nothing more than a tool
prosecutors use to coerce defendants into plea bargains out of fear for
“The deep dark secret of the death penalty that nobody wants to talk
about is it gives tremendous bargaining power to the government and it
holds a gun to your head,” Mitchell said.
“My client is innocent of these charges and we intend to fight that,
but it’s always a dangerous fight when the state says ‘if you lose
we’re going to execute you.’ You’ve got to have a lot of willpower to
proceed with your life on the line.”
Chandler said the 9th Judicial District Attorney’s office has,
including Watson’s case, pursued the death penalty against four men
Two of the men, James Smith and Jerry Fuller, pleaded guilty, and
Stanley Bedford was convicted by a jury. All three are serving life
sentences of more than 100 years in prison.
Having the death penalty as an option was highly instrumental in
obtaining the high sentences against Smith and Fuller, Chandler said.
Executions in New Mexico: Since 1933, New Mexico has executed nine
men. The most recent execution, in 2001, was the state’s first since
The death penalty’s repeal will not affect the two men currently on
New Mexico’s death row or those convicted of qualifying crimes that
occurred prior to July 1.