SANTA FE — Ronald Keine, who spent 22 months on New Mexico's Death Row before being exonerated of murdering a college student, said Monday that the new governor and legislators should stop trying to reinstate capital punishment.

"New Mexico had a bad system, a corrupt system," Keine, 63, said in a telephone interview from his home in Michigan. "It makes me nervous that they want to go back to something that did not work."

Legislators in 2009 repealed New Mexico's death penalty, but newly elected Republican Gov. Susana Martinez said she wants lawmakers to reverse that decision so that juries have the option of choosing capital punishment for the worst criminals.

State Rep. Dennis Kintigh, a retired FBI agent, shares Martinez's opinion that the death penalty should be on the books. But he is at cross-purposes with the Martinez on how to go about it.

Kintigh, R-Roswell, introduced a bill Monday that calls on legislators to let the public decide the issue by referendum. His proposal, House Joint Resolution 6, would require a two-thirds vote from the House and the Senate to be placed on the 2012 general election ballot.

Kintigh said letting the public vote on the death penalty would end debates in the Legislature each time power shifts from one party to the other.

Martinez, a career prosecutor before becoming governor, does not favor a vote on capital punishment by the citizenry.

"The governor supports reinstating the death penalty and believes this can be best accomplished through a statutory change," her spokesman said Monday.


Gary Mitchell, a Ruidoso lawyer who has handled more than 50 death-penalty cases across a 30-year career, said Martinez had embraced the issue "for political reasons."

"It's a shame because Susana had a good soul as a district attorney. She did not seek the death penalty because she knew how costly and ineffective it was," Mitchell said. "This is a just political stunt designed to appease people."

In her State of the State speech last week, Martinez said she believed in the death penalty as an important tool in fighting crime and sending a message that the worst criminals deserve the ultimate punishment.

"When a monster rapes and murders a child or a criminal kills a police officer, the death penalty should be an option for the jury," she said.

Mitchell said New Mexico juries are the best evidence that the state's residents do not favor capital punishment. Rarely have they imposed death sentences, and the state has executed only two people in the last 50 years The most recent inmate put to death was Terry Clark in 2001. Convicted of killing 9-year-old Dena Lynn Gore of Artesia in 1986, Clark dropped his appeals.

Until Clark, New Mexico had not executed anyone since 1960.

Keine was 26 when he and three friends were convicted of murder in Bernalillo County and sent to death row in 1974.

"We were like the poster boys for the death penalty," Keine said Monday. "We were dirty bikers with long hair and colors on our back, riding choppers."

He said they also were innocent, framed by sheriff's officers intent on solving the murder of William Venten, a student at the University of New Mexico.

"Jurors figured that, because the police arrested us and put us in jail, we must have been guilty," Keine said.

The real killer of Venten stepped forward in 1975 after say he had a religious conversion. He produced the murder weapon and detailed the crime.

Then-District Attorney James Brandenburg of Albuquerque said he was not convinced by the new evidence, insisting that Keine and the others were guilty.

The case against Keine and his three co-defendants finally collapsed in 1976.

They went free after the only purported witness, a motel maid said, she had concocted a story about seeing them commit the murder. She told the Detroit News that she made up the story in hopes of ingratiating herself with people in law enforcement. She wanted them to let her boyfriend out of prison.

Keine said he works as a plumber and is active in a project called Witness to Innocence. The other three men who were on death row with him — Thomas

Gladish, Richard Greer and Clarence Smith — died after being freed.

Kintigh said the justice system is better now than when New Mexico's most famous wrongful conviction occurred. Defense lawyers, he said, are more aggressive and determined to make the government prove its case.

Kintigh said he supports capital punishment because of his own involvement in "a monstrous case."

As an FBI agent, he investigated a drug gang that stormed a house in Lovington, terrified four children under the age of 9, then murdered a man and his 16-year-old son.

Prosecuted by the federal government, it began as a death-penalty case but was reduced in a 2005 plea bargain to life without parole. Kintigh said justice was not done because the killers deserved death.

Though New Mexico abolished its death penalty in 2009, Robert Fry of Farmington and Timothy Allen of Bloomfield remain on death row. They were sentenced before the law was changed.