FRI: UNM student pleads guilty for role in fatal shooting, + More
New Mexico student pleads guilty for role in fatal shooting - Associated Press
A University of New Mexico freshman pleaded guilty to two counts stemming from his role in a deadly campus shooting that involved a basketball player from a rival school.
Prosecutors said Thursday that Jonathan Smith, 19, agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy to commit aggravated battery and tampering with evidence. The agreement was sealed and unavailable for public inspection.
He was accused of participating in a plan to lure New Mexico State University basketball player Mike Peake hours before a scheduled basketball game between the two schools in November with the intent to ambush him.
Authorities said the confrontation led to a shootout between Peake and 19-year-old UNM student Brandon Travis, who died at the scene.
Prosecutors said Smith, who was unarmed that night, faces up to three years of incarceration. A sentencing hearing has not been scheduled.
Authorities believe Travis conspired with Smith and at least two others — including a 17-year-old — to lure Peake to campus and assault him. They have said Travis was seeking revenge for being beaten up in a fight involving Peake and other men at an Oct. 15 football game in Las Cruces between the two schools.
New Mexico State Police have said that the gun Peake possessed was legal, but the gun used by Travis was stolen in June out of a man's truck in Clovis.
Peake, 21, suffered a leg wound in the shootout that has required several surgeries. He has not been charged in Travis' death, but was suspended indefinitely from the Aggies' basketball team.
Prosecutors said cases are still pending with two other suspects.
N.M. Legislature approves study of district offices, staff for every lawmaker - Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico
Both chambers of the New Mexico Legislature in the first week of this year’s session approved an initial move to provide all 112 lawmakers with field offices and full-time staff.
The Senate on Thursday afternoon approved House Bill 1 in a 33-5 vote. The House approved it on Wednesday. Called the feed bill, it sets aside $57.4 million to pay for the 2023 legislative session and to keep the Roundhouse running later this year after the session ends.
The feed bill typically passes without much controversy, but this year some Republicans opposed it because it includes $2.5 million to pay for a feasibility study of how other legislatures around the country have handled professionalization and modernization.
The New Mexico Legislature is the only state Legislature in the country whose lawmakers receive no salary, according to a report by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of New Mexico.
Lawmakers are eligible for a per diem of $150 per day over a 60-day regular session, or about $9,000 per lawmaker per year, the report found.
New Mexico faces unique challenges because it is the fifth-largest state by geographic area, House Floor Leader Gail Chasey (D-Albuquerque), the feed bill’s sponsor, told the Senate Finance Committee earlier on Thursday.
For example, Chasey pointed to House District 49, which encompasses parts of Catron, Sierra, Socorro and Valencia Counties. She said it is “the largest geographic House district in the country.”
“We have districts that are larger than the state of Rhode Island, and are equivalent to the state of Massachusetts,” she said. “So how are we meeting the needs of our constituents, whether it’s constituent services, or policy studies?”
While Chasey’s district is relatively compact, she needs full-time staff, she said, to research issues her constituents bring to her.
The study would look at the logistics and resources needed for district staff offices and operations for the Legislature, according to the bill’s text.
If Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signs the bill into law, the Legislative Council would go through a competitive bidding process to hire a consulting company to conduct the research, Chasey said.
The study is just one of several measures expected to come up this session that would reshape the Legislature.
House Joint Resolution 2, if passed, would ask voters to decide whether to extend the length of every legislative session to 60 days. (As things stand, even-numbered years see a 30-day, budget-focused session, while odd-numbered years see a 60-day session with more topics up for consideration.)
A measure introduced last year would have created an independent commission to set salaries for lawmakers and many other elected officials. If a similar measure is to be weighed this year, it must be introduced by Feb. 16.
Providing full-time staffers to every lawmaker could cost between $26 million and $30 million, Sen. George Muñoz said on the Senate floor Thursday.
Overall, the feed bill includes $11.7 million to pay for the session and $45.7 million for the various legislative agencies’ spending all year long, including the Legislative Council Service, the Legislative Finance Committee, the Legislative Education Study Committee, and the House and Senate chief clerk offices.
Senator questions process
The committee approved the bill after Sen. Bill Sharer (R-Farmington) tried unsuccessfully three times to amend it to remove funding for the study. His motions to amend all failed in 7-4 votes along party lines.
Sharer said the study is probably worth doing, but the funding for it belongs in the omnibus budget bill.
“We’ve been 110 years doing it this way,” he said. “Waiting five more months for the regular budget to get it there, it wouldn’t break us.”
Senate Majority Whip Michael Padilla asked Sharer if he would support the study if it was moved into the state budget legislation.
“It wouldn’t give me heartburn,” Sharer said.
“Heartburn means a lot of things to a lot of different people,” Padilla responded.
New Mexico’s Superintendent of Insurance retires — By Nash Jones, KUNM News
New Mexico’s superintendent of insurance has retired and his deputy has been appointed to fill the role on an interim basis. She’ll be the first woman and first Latina in the position, according to the department.
Russell Toal has led the Office of the Superintendent of Insurance — the state’s insurance regulation agency — since 2019, overseeing the department throughout the pandemic and last year’s historically destructive fire season — both of which had insurance repercussions for health and property.
OSI said in a statement that Toal’s retirement is effective today and that he’ll quickly move on to a position as a contractor for the Legislative Finance Committee at the Roundhouse focused on insurance matters.
Former Deputy under Toal, Jennifer Catechis, has been appointed Interim Superintendent of Insurance.
She has 17 years of management experience, including as the state’s Chief Examiner of Insurance, according to OSI.
She said she’s proud of the work the agency did throughout the pandemic to provide "affordable, accessible and equitable insurance" to New Mexicans and plans to prioritize fire victims in need of home insurance as she takes the top job in the department.
Prosecutors seek justice in Baldwin case, regardless of fame - By Morgan Lee Associated Press
Alec Baldwin faces two types of manslaughter charges in a reckoning on gun safety and the film industry, with two potential standards for proof and possible sanctions of up to five years in prison.
Prosecutors have vowed to file those charges before February against the 64-year-old actor and weapons specialist Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, in the fatal shooting of a cinematographer on the set of the Western movie "Rust" in October 2021.
Santa Fe District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies says the case is about equal justice under the law and accountability in the death of Halyna Hutchins, regardless of the fame or fortune of those involved.
She says the Ukrainian-born cinematographer's death while rehearsing a scene was tragic — and preventable.
Baldwin and Gutierrez-Reed maintain their innocence and have vowed to fight the charges, which were announced Thursday. Here is a look at the case:
One charge of involuntary manslaughter will require proof of negligence. It's punishable by up to 18 months in jail and a $5,000 fine under New Mexico law.
The second manslaughter charge is for reckless disregard of safety "without due caution and circumspection." It carries a higher threshold of wrongdoing and includes a "firearm enhancement" that could result in a mandatory five years in prison because the offense was committed with a gun.
Prosecutors say a jury may ultimately decide which definition of manslaughter to pursue. But first a judge will have 60 days to weigh whether there is sufficient evidence to proceed.
Santa Fe District Defender Julie Ball says initial evidence of probable cause is typically weighed in favor of prosecutors, using a lower burden of proof than later at trial.
Involuntary manslaughter can involve a killing that happens while a defendant is doing something that is lawful but dangerous.
THE DEFENSE AND THE PROSECUTION
Baldwin has said he had no reason to believe there was a live bullet in the gun he discharged.
That defense is complicated by his role as both lead actor and co-producer on "Rust." State workplace safety regulators have fined Rust Movie Productions based on a string of safety failures, including testimony that production managers took limited or no action to address two misfires of blank ammunition on the set prior to the shooting.
Defense attorneys also maintain the innocence of Gutierrez-Reed, the daughter of veteran sharpshooter and film consultant Thell Reed. Gutierrez-Reed was hired at age 24, with limited prior experience on a handful of films, to supervise weapons, ammunition and training on "Rust."
Carmack-Altwies says a movie set armorer has the responsibility to ensure ammunition and guns are handled safety and has the authority to halt rehearsals or filming at any time when concerns arise.
The district attorney alleges that Gutierrez-Reed without noticing somehow loaded a bullet into the gun that killed Hutchins and should have noticed the difference between a live and a dummy round.
Dummy rounds typically rattle when shaken — the sound of a BB inside — and have a dimpled base or other possible markings. Blanks contain a charge but have no slug or bullet at the tip.
At the same time, New Mexico workplace safety regulators say "Rust" managers limited Gutierrez-Reed's ability to require safety and weapons training for people including Baldwin, and that a request for more training was rebuffed. Rust Movie Productions disputes the findings and sanctions.
The fatal shot was fired at a ranch on the outskirts of Santa Fe shortly after a lunch break, as Baldwin gathered inside a clapboard chapel with a dozen cast and crew members — the director, a scriptwriter, lighting and sound technicians, a safety coordinator and Hutchins — to rehearse a scene in which Baldwin draws a pistol from across his waist.
Law enforcement interviews indicate that Gutierrez-Reed remained outside.
Authorities say Baldwin was pointing the gun at Hutchins when he fired it, striking her in the chest and hitting director Joel Souza in the shoulder.
No movie cameras were filming at the time, but lapel camera video from law enforcement officers shows a chaotic aftermath as Hutchins slips in and out of consciousness and an evacuation helicopter arrives, to no avail.
The assistant director who handed Baldwin the gun, David Halls, has agreed to plead guilty to negligent use of a deadly weapon. It's unclear if he has agreed to testify in court.
Defense attorney Luke Nikas says Baldwin relied on professionals who assured him the gun did not have live rounds. The actor has sought to clear his name by suing people involved in handling and supplying the weapon.
In that lawsuit, Baldwin says that while working on camera angles with Hutchins, he pointed the gun in her direction and pulled back and released the hammer of the weapon, and it discharged.
Prosecutors say they will rely on an FBI analysis that shows the gun would not have gone off without the trigger being pulled. They say it was incumbent on Baldwin to know the gun and its ammunition and to handle them safely.
A yearlong investigation by Santa Fe County Sheriff Adan Mendoza did not establish how live ammunition wound up on the film set, something that industry experts say should never happen.
Investigators initially found 500 rounds — a mix of blanks, dummies and what appeared to be live bullets.
Carmack Altwies says her team is unlikely to resolve how they got there — and that she isn't that interested in doing so. For her the important matter is that nobody detected the live rounds and one was allowed to be loaded into the gun.
As Baldwin faces charges, gun safety on sets 'gets louder' - By Andrew Dalton AP Entertainment Writer
Film production and firearms experts say movie sets probably changed permanently when cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was shot and killed on the remote New Mexico set of the Western "Rust" 14 months ago, leading to the announcement from prosecutors Thursday that Alec Baldwin and the film's weapons supervisor will be charged with involuntary manslaughter later this month.
"The gun safety experience on set has become more vocal, it's a lot louder," said Joey Dillon, an armorer who has overseen the use of firearms on television shows including "Westworld" and movies including "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs." "I make it a lot louder myself."
Baldwin was pointing the gun with a live round inside that killed Hutchins as they set up a shot for an upcoming scene. People at several levels of production are determined to ensure it never happens again.
That has meant the increasing use of digital and other technology that could make gunfire of any kind obsolete. It has also meant more simple things, like shouting when using the same safety protocols long in place to make clear to everyone when a gun is present and what its status is.
Actors and others are more interested when the gun is handed over.
"Now people want to check because people are a little a little gun shy," Dillon said. "I'll stop the whole process just to show them so that they feel comfortable with it."
While checking a gun themselves may be in the best interest of actors, how much responsibility they bear for doing so remains in dispute, and will be a central question for jurors should Baldwin's case go to trial.
His union, and his lawyer, say this onus can't be placed on performers.
"An actor's job is not to be a firearms or weapons expert," the Screen Actors Guild said in a statement Thursday. "Firearms are provided for their use under the guidance of multiple expert professionals directly responsible for the safe and accurate operation of that firearm."
Baldwin's defense attorney Luke Nikas said in a statement that he did his job by relying "on the professionals with whom he worked, who assured him the gun did not have live rounds."
Santa Fe District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies disagrees.
"It is incumbent on anybody that holds a gun to make sure that it is either not loaded or to know what it is loaded with," she said in an interview with The Associated Press. "And certainly then to not point it at someone and pull the trigger. That's where his actor liability, we think, comes in."
She also emphasized that while Baldwin is to be charged as the man with the gun in his hand, his role as a producer, and at least partial responsibility for the lax conditions that led to his having a loaded gun, were a consideration in deciding to bring the charges.
Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, who oversaw the film's firearms, will also be charged with involuntary manslaughter, the district attorney said.
Her attorney Jason Bowles said in a statement that they would "bring the full truth to light and that she "will be exonerated of wrongdoing by a jury."
Technology may take the safety question out of actors' hands entirely.
Productions were already using digital effects to simulate the flash and bang of gunfire more often, but Hutchins' death has almost certainly sped the change along.
"There are a lot of bad ways that digital takes over, but this is a good way," said Spencer Parsons, an associate professor and head of production at Northwestern University in the School of Communication's department of Radio/Television/Film who has worked as a director and in other roles on any sets. "I'm not saying that there's no good reason to use real pyrotechnics, but in terms of basic safety and speed, this makes sense."
And when it comes to hardware, companies have been making increasingly convincing replicas, essentially enhanced BB guns with moving parts that behave like pistols but don't fire bullets. Muzzle flashes and sounds are added in post-production.
But, Parsons said, "there's not a lot of replicas for some of the antique stuff" used in Westerns and other period movies, which he specializes in.
Other solutions that have been sought for sets may be misguided, and may not help.
In the days immediately after the shooting, much media discussion surrounded the dangers of blank rounds in guns, based on the assumption that one of them killed Hutchins.
"From experience I knew it was more than that," Dillon said. "But the immediate reaction in the industry was to try to cancel the use of blanks altogether."
Dillon said dummy rounds, prop bullets used in scenes where characters are shown loading guns, are more likely to result in mistakes like what happened on "Rust," since they look like live ammunition and could be confused with them.
He said he found that "frustrating because that can accidentally impart to the crew that we've been ignorant" and previously kept them in unnecessary danger.
When investigators revealed it was actually a live round, the fear of blanks, which can certainly be very dangerous at very close range, remained.
Parsons said the fact that it was misguided to blame the fact that "Rust" was a small-budget independent production. He said the pace and length of large studio productions can put crews in positions where accidents of all kinds can become more likely.
"In some cases they can put people through even longer hours, and the need for speed is even greater," he said. "That can be very very dangerous. The need for speed on any set incentives behavior that's not always the best for safety."
Gutierrez-Reed's dual role as armorer and assistant props supervisor has also received negative attention.
But Dillon said the overlap of weapons and props is inevitable, and such dual roles happen often. The crew members playing those roles just need to be utterly clear when they're playing which.
"When the guns come out, that's all I'm worried about," he said, "and that's all I'm working on."
New Mexicans warned that extra federal food aid will end - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press
More than half a million New Mexicans will see the amount of money they have to spend on groceries each month shrink significantly when the U.S. government cuts off extra aid that had been doled out during the coronavirus pandemic.
Top public health officials in the poverty-stricken state issued the warning Thursday, saying it will take a mix of short- and long-term efforts to fill the gaps that will be created when the extra food assistance ends after next month.
New Mexico has one of the highest rates in the nation for food insecurity among children, putting the state at the top of the list when it comes to the percentage of residents and families who receive benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
That means there will be more pressure on food banks that already are dealing with long lines, fewer donations and higher prices due to inflation, officials and advocates said.
"We're doing what we can in the face of the short notice of the feds cutting this emergency benefit. We didn't think it would come this soon, but it has," said Dr. David Scrase, head of the New Mexico Human Services Department.
Scrase said some of the longer term solutions to strengthen the safety net would involve funneling more money toward school meals, making food accessible to children during the summer months and bolstering access for low-income families to fruits and vegetables at local farmers' markets.
Karmela Martinez, director of the agency's income support division, said it's a problem that not just one agency or one food pantry can solve.
Sherry Hooper, executive director of The Food Depot in Santa Fe, also raised concerns that the federal government will be curbing funding that supports The Emergency Food Assistance Program, another key emergency food assistance program that New Mexicans rely on.
That program was responsible for distributing more than 11.6 million pounds of food to 385,000 families for the year ending June 2022, she said.
State officials provided some examples of how much of a decrease families and individuals could see following the final distribution of extra benefits in February. Two parents and a child could see their allotment drop from $740 per month to $335, but officials stressed it will depend on the size of the family and their income.
The advocacy group New Mexico Voices for Children is pushing for lawmakers to increase by nearly four-fold an existing state $175 child tax credit, saying that would help to offset the loss of the extra federal benefits and address the continued financial fallout from the pandemic for low-income families.
The legislative session began Tuesday. In her address to lawmakers, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said she would pursue funding to eliminate the cost of school meals for every child in the state, another step that officials in her administration said would help fill the gap.
Final decision on Albuquerque’s free bus fare program on hold, again - By Ryan Lowery, Source New Mexico
The fate of Albuquerque’s Zero Fares program, which allows anyone to board a bus without paying or showing a pass, will be decided at a future City Council meeting after councilors agreed Wednesday to delay a vote until next month’s meeting. This marks the fourth time the Council has deferred a vote on the matter.
Wednesday’s deferment followed a decision by the Council to combine elements of multiple bills dealing with transit services into one bill that counselors can vote on at a later date.
The combined elements of the merged legislation include provisions for things like increased security on buses and at stops, along with $1 million for security costs. It also includes plans to convert the role of transit security guards into certified law enforcement officers in order to give them more authority to enforce transit laws and policies, and to make arrests in cases where crimes have been committed. Another aim of the combined bill is to streamline access to the city’s Sun Vans, an ADA-compliant alternative to fixed-route buses.
If passed by the Council, the merged bill would essentially create a new pilot program, and at the conclusion, a study would be conducted to determine the effectiveness of the changes made to the program.
Councilors have been debating for months whether to make the Zero Fares Pilot Program permanent, issue additional stipulations or scrap it altogether. Before the launch of Zero Fares, city buses cost $1 per trip, or $2 for a day pass. Monthly passes were also available, starting around $30.
While passengers currently do not have to pay a fare or show a pass to ride a city bus, Councilors Dan Lewis and Klarissa Peña previously introduced a plan that would keep the bus free, but require a pass in order to board. Under the proposal, riders would have to complete an application and show photo identification to obtain the pass.
Opponents of requiring such a pass expressed concerns that these kinds of requirements could create barriers for people who rely on the bus for transportation.
For many, like Ivey McClelland, city buses are the most affordable way to get to work or medical appointments. McClelland lives in Albuquerque’s International District and uses the bus almost daily to get to her job in Uptown. Though the city’s buses are her main form of transportation, she occasionally uses taxis and ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft, particularly on weekends when bus service is limited or unavailable. However, those are expensive alternatives to public transportation, McClelland said, often costing her more than $25 for a three-mile ride to work.
McClelland had been riding the bus for free before Zero Fares took effect through the city’s senior services, which allowed anyone 60 and older to ride for free. However, she said the Zero Fares program was still a welcomed change because her younger brother lives with her and, prior to the program, he still had to pay to ride.
“I think it’s a good thing,” she said. “I’d like to see them extend the program, because if you go back having passes, and making people pay a dollar, it inconveniences too many people, especially us seniors.”
Security on buses and at stops remains a top issue for riders and bus drivers alike, Councilor Louie Sanchez said during Wednesday’s meeting. He said he spoke with a driver who told him that during his morning route, he picks up 13 people that are headed to work, while many others use the bus for shelter. Sanchez argued that removing the $1 fare has created an increased need for security.
“We already had security in terms of having a fare,” he said. “Now that we don’t have a fare, we need to concentrate on security.”
Councilor Lewis, one of the proponents of requiring a pass for free rides, recounted a recent and widely publicized bus ride he took where he said he witnessed two people using fentanyl on the bus during his first ride in 20 years.
“I just don’t want people to get the idea somehow that our bus system is clean, and safe, and ridership is up, bus drivers are happy and everything is wonderful, because that just could not be further from the truth right now,” Lewis said.
McClelland said that personal safety is a growing concern for her, and though she used to have reservations about riding city buses at night, in recent months, at times, she’s felt unsafe even during the day.
“The thing (my brother and I) don’t like about it is all the riff-raff — the ‘entertainment,’ as we call it,” she said with a chuckle. “And I see security guards on the buses, but they’re unarmed. They’re basically just Paul Blart — observe and report.”
Still, McClelland supports the Zero Fares program and doesn’t want to see any sort of pass requirement implemented because she feels it would be too inconvenient, particularly to seniors or the disabled.
“But if they’re going to issue passes, have them at the libraries, because the library is a lot easier for people to get to,” she said.
Until the Council makes a final decision on the Zero Fares program, city buses remain free to ride, without any kind of pass or ID needed to board.
The Council will take up the issue once again during its Feb. 6 meeting.
State laws vary widely on whether felons can run for office - By Gary Fields And Josh Funk Associated Press
The case of a defeated New Mexico candidate arrested in a politically motivated shooting spree has turned a spotlight on an issue that has been evolving in the states: whether people with criminal convictions are eligible to run for public office.
Solomon Peña overwhelmingly lost a bid for the New Mexico statehouse as a Republican and is accused of paying four men to shoot at the homes of four Democratic officials. He had denied his loss and made baseless claims that the November election was "rigged" against him, even though he received just 26% of the vote against the longtime Democratic incumbent.
While the case raises alarms over politically motivated violence in the U.S., it also highlights differences across the country in whether people with past criminal convictions can run for office. Peña spent nine years behind bars after being convicted of being part of a retail theft ring.
The states have a range of laws for reinstating rights to felons. In most states, the ability to seek state or local office coincides with the restoration of voting rights.
But even in some states where the vote is restored automatically, felons still need to get a pardon or expungement to run for office, said Margaret Love, co-founder and director of the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, which keeps a 50-state database on restoration of rights.
Some states, including Louisiana and Nebraska, have additional time requirements on when someone's eligibility to run for office can be restored. States that require a pardon can vary on who has the pardoning authority.
Peña, 39, was arrested in April 2007, accused of stealing electronics and other goods from several retail stores as part of a burglary crew. He was released from prison in 2016, and had his voting rights restored after completing five years of probation in 2021, corrections officials said.
His opponent last year filed a lawsuit questioning Peña's eligibility to seek office, but New Mexico District Court Judge Joshua Allison said the state constitution only required that he be a qualified voter to be eligible for elected office. In a ruling that is being appealed, the judge said any attempt by the state legislature to impose additional requirements would be unconstitutional.
In New Mexico, voting rights are now automatically reinstated upon completion of a sentence, Lauren Rodriguez, communications director for the state attorney general's office, said in a written response to questions.
Some states don't allow those with felony convictions to run for office, while others impose various restrictions.
Earlier this month, on the two-year anniversary of his participation in the attack on the U.S. Capitol, former West Virginia state lawmaker Derrick Evans announced he would run for a U.S. House seat in 2024. That's despite pleading guilty to a felony civil disorder charge in 2022.
With his felony conviction and a sentence that includes three years of probation, state law would prohibit Evans from voting or seeking state or local office. Under that law, even when he finishes his sentence he would be unable to run again for the legislature or for magistrate, a limited judicial post that is open to non-lawyers.
There are no such limits to run for federal office.
University of Iowa law professor Derek Muller said the Constitution's 14th Amendment spells out who would be unable to run for federal office. The list includes those who took an oath to support the U.S. Constitution and then engaged in insurrection or rebellion, or those who gave aid or comfort to the country's enemies.
"That's the only thing that expressly disqualifies you under the Constitution," he said.
Donald Kersey III, deputy secretary and general counsel for the West Virginia secretary of state's office, said Evans was not convicted of insurrection or treason and therefore appears eligible to run for Congress.
In Georgia, a person convicted of a felony involving "moral turpitude" can hold office only if the state Board of Pardons and Paroles grants a pardon or a restoration of civil and political rights. Most violent crimes and most felonies involving stealing money are crimes of moral turpitude, but some, like felony DUI, are not.
A felony conviction in Illinois bars people from holding any municipal office — for instance, as a city mayor or village board trustee — unless they receive a pardon or the state's governor restores their rights. Illinois also bars people with a felony conviction from serving as a county sheriff, or taking on a political office overseeing a fire protection district, a public library board or a park district.
In Virginia, people convicted of felonies are automatically stripped of their civil rights. The state constitution gives the governor the sole discretion to restore them, apart from gun rights. With the restoration of voting rights comes the ability to seek public office.
Candidates with felony criminal records can hold office in New Hampshire once their sentences are finished, except for those convicted of bribery or corruption to get elected or obtain an appointment.
Louisianans approved a constitutional amendment in 1997 that barred convicted felons from seeking or holding public office for 15 years following the completion of their sentence. But a 2016 state Supreme Court ruling nullified it.
In 2018, state voters again overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment on the subject. This one prohibits convicted felons, unless pardoned, from seeking or holding public office until five years after completing their sentence.
In Nebraska, the law has several steps. First is a two-year wait after the completion of a sentence to have voting rights restored. That allows someone to seek office, but not hold it — which requires a pardon.
Sam Titus, 66, defeated the incumbent Democrat in his Burt County supervisor race in November. But to take office, he had to wait until his pardon was granted more than a month later by a panel that included the governor, secretary of state and attorney general.
Titus had two felony convictions from years ago, including for buying a stolen planter for his farm, which he described as a "poor decision." He served probation and thought the convictions had been expunged. He discovered the pardon requirement after winning a race in 2020 for the local airport authority board and learning he could not be sworn in.
Titus applied for a pardon in January 2021 but did not get a hearing until December 2022. He said he told voters about his criminal record as he campaigned and explained he would need a pardon to be seated.
Titus said his situation shows how difficult it can be to deal with the legal system, but also why states should provide a pathway for felons who have done their time to serve the public.
"Our lawmakers truly need to realize how important it is to help those that have changed their lives, understand their wrongs, are good people, want to move forward, want to do the right thing and want to give back to those people that they have hurt," he said.
Alec Baldwin to be charged with manslaughter in set shooting - By Morgan Lee Associated Press
Actor Alec Baldwin and a weapons specialist will be charged with involuntary manslaughter in the fatal shooting of a cinematographer on a New Mexico movie set, prosecutors announced Thursday, citing a "criminal disregard for safety."
Santa Fe District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies issued a statement announcing the charges against Baldwin and Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, who supervised weapons on the set of the Western "Rust."
Halyna Hutchins died shortly after being wounded during rehearsals at a ranch on the outskirts of Santa Fe on Oct. 21, 2021. Baldwin was pointing a pistol at Hutchins when the gun went off, killing her and wounding the director, Joel Souza.
Assistant director David Halls, who handed Baldwin the gun, has signed an agreement to plead guilty to negligent use of a deadly weapon, the district attorney's office said.
The decision to charge Baldwin marked a stunning fall for an A-list actor whose 40-year career included the early blockbuster "The Hunt for Red October" and a starring role in the sitcom "30 Rock," as well as iconic appearances in Martin Scorsese's "The Departed" and a film adaptation of David Mamet's "Glengary Glen Ross." In recent years, he was known for his impression of former President Donald Trump on "Saturday Night Live."
The district attorney said Baldwin's involvement as a producer and as the actor who fired the gun weighed in the decision to file charges.
"This set was really being run pretty fast and loose, and he knew or he should have known that there had been misfires, that there were safety concerns, that multiple people had brought them up," Carmack-Altwies told The Associated Press in an interview. The fact that Baldwin was "the actor that held the gun, that pointed the gun and that pulled the trigger" also contributed.
Involuntary manslaughter can involve a killing that happens while a defendant is doing something that is lawful but dangerous and is acting negligently or without caution.
The charge is a fourth-degree felony, punishable by up to 18 months in jail and a $5,000 fine under New Mexico law. The charge also includes a provision that could result in a mandatory five years in prison because the offense was committed with a gun.
The district attorney said charges will be filed by the end of January, and that Baldwin and Gutierrez-Reed will be issued a summons to appear in court. She said prosecutors will forgo a grand jury and rely on a judge to determine if there is probable cause to move toward trial.
Andrea Reeb, a special prosecutor on the case, cited a "pattern of criminal disregard for safety" on the set.
"If any one of these three people — Alec Baldwin, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed or David Halls — had done their job, Halyna Hutchins would be alive today. It's that simple," Reeb said.
Baldwin's attorney said the charges represented "a terrible miscarriage of justice."
The actor "had no reason to believe there was a live bullet in the gun — or anywhere on the movie set. He relied on the professionals with whom he worked, who assured him the gun did not have live rounds. We will fight these charges, and we will win," Luke Nikas said in a statement.
As the film's armorer, Gutierrez-Reed had the authority to bring rehearsals to a halt if safety standards were not being met, according to the district attorney.
She loaded the gun and "absolutely should have noticed" the difference between a live and a dummy round, Carmack-Altwies said.
An attorney for Gutierrez-Reed said the charges were "the result of a very flawed investigation and an inaccurate understanding of the full facts."
"We intend to bring the full truth to light and believe Hannah will be exonerated of wrongdoing by a jury," Jason Bowles said.
It was unclear when Baldwin and Gutierrez-Reed might be required to appear in court in Santa Fe once charges are filed. Defendants can participate remotely in many initial court proceedings or seek to have their first appearance waived.
Santa Fe County Sheriff Adan Mendoza, who led the initial investigation into Hutchins' death, has described "a degree of neglect" on the film set. But he left decisions about potential criminal charges to prosecutors after delivering the results of a yearlong investigation in October. That report did not specify how live ammunition wound up on the film set.
Baldwin has described the killing as a "tragic accident."
He sought to clear his name by suing people involved in handling and supplying the loaded gun. Baldwin, also a co-producer on "Rust," said he was told the gun was safe.
In his lawsuit, Baldwin said that while working on camera angles with Hutchins, he pointed the gun in her direction and pulled back and released the hammer of the weapon, which discharged.
New Mexico's Office of the Medical Investigator determined the shooting was an accident following the completion of an autopsy and a review of law enforcement reports.
New Mexico's Occupational Health and Safety Bureau levied the maximum fine against Rust Movie Productions based on a string of safety failures, including testimony that production managers took limited or no action to address two misfires of blank ammunition on the set prior to the shooting.
Regulators say production managers on the set failed to follow standard industry protocols for gun safety. Rust Movie Productions continues to challenge the $137,000 fine.
Investigators initially found 500 rounds of ammunition at the movie set — a mix of blanks, dummy rounds and what appeared to be live rounds. Industry experts have said live rounds should never be on set.
Hutchins' family — widower Matthew Hutchins and son Andros — settled a lawsuit against producers under an agreement that aims to restart filming with Matthew Hutchins serving as executive producer.
In a statement issued by their attorney, relatives thanked authorities for seeking the charges. "It is a comfort to the family that, in New Mexico, no one is above the law," they said.
The Screen Actors Guild said guns are provided to actors by expert professionals who are "directly responsible" for safety.
"The prosecutor's contention that an actor has a duty to ensure the functional and mechanical operation of a firearm on a production set is wrong and uninformed. An actor's job is not to be a firearms or weapons expert," the union said in a statement.
The district attorney said Baldwin "was handed a loaded gun. Whether it's loaded with dummies or live ammunition, it is on him."
Criminal charges have rarely been filed in connection with deaths on film sets.
A district attorney in North Carolina cited negligence as a factor but decided against charges in the 1993 death of Brandon Lee while filming a scene in the movie "The Crow." The son of martial-arts legend Bruce Lee was hit by a .44-caliber slug from a gun that was supposed to have fired a blank.
More recently, film director Randall Miller pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespassing in the death of assistant camera operator Sarah Jones, who was hit by a train in the 2014 filming of "Midnight Rider" in rural Georgia. The production did not have permission to be on the train tracks, and Miller served half of a two-year sentence.
The shooting spurred other filmmakers to minimize risks by using computer-generated imagery of gunfire rather than real weapons with blank ammunition.
New Mexico shooting case revives pretrial detention debate - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press
A felon and failed political candidate suspected of orchestrating a series of drive-by shootings at the homes of four elected Democratic officials in New Mexico will be due in court next week for a detention hearing.
Solomon Peña remains in custody pending a Jan. 23 hearing at which prosecutors will argue that he is a danger to the community and that no conditions of release would be enough to ensure public safety given the allegations outlined in a criminal complaint.
Prosecutors in a motion filed Wednesday said Peña's actions "show what lengths he is willing to go when he is dissatisfied with reality."
Peña was unsuccessful in his GOP bid for the New Mexico statehouse in November. He had claimed the election was rigged despite the district being a longtime Democratic stronghold.
Authorities arrested Peña on Monday, accusing the political newcomer of paying for a father and son and two other unidentified men to shoot at the officials' homes between early December and early January. No one was hurt, although bullets went through the bedroom of a state senator's 10-year-old daughter.
Police also confirmed Thursday they are investigating contributions made to Peña's campaign by one of the men accused of conspiring with Pena and that man's mother.
Detectives said they learned through witness interviews that Peña allegedly identified individuals to funnel contributions from an unknown source to his campaign, and they are trying to determine whether the money was generated from drug trafficking.
Peña appeared via video shackled for an initial court appearance Wednesday on multiple counts that include shooting at a home, aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, conspiracy and being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Roberta Yurcic, a defense attorney assigned to the case, has not returned messages seeking comment. She is expected to seek conditions for Peña's release during the upcoming hearing.
While an assessment based on multiple factors recommends Peña be released, it will be up a judge to decide.
The risk assessment tool has been the focus of much criticism as the public has pushed for Democratic lawmakers and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to consider reforms amid Albuquerque's ongoing struggle to combat persistent violent crime and what many perceive as a "revolving door" in the criminal justice system.
Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina on Wednesday reiterated his complaints that the system is broken and the assessment tool is flawed.
"How can we require judges to use this broken tool? We need to fix this process so the public will have faith that we are keeping the community safe from dangerous criminals," the chief said in a statement.
Top court administrators in New Mexico have defended the tool, which was developed by the Arnold Foundation and is used in dozens of jurisdictions around the U.S.
Authorities identified Peña as the key suspect using a combination of cellphone and vehicle records, bullet casings collected near the officials' homes and information from a confidential witness.
Police said Peña had previously shown up uninvited at the homes of elected officials with what he claimed were documents proving that he had won his race. There was no evidence of widespread voter fraud, or any irregularity involving enough votes to change a result in New Mexico in 2020 or 2022.
Court records show Peña was incarcerated for several years after being arrested in 2007 in connection with what authorities described as a smash-and-grab burglary scheme that targeted retail stores. His voting rights were restored after he completed probation in 2021.
Debate reignites as lone Mexican gray wolf roams New Mexico - Associated Press
A female Mexican gray wolf has roamed beyond the endangered species' recovery area into the more northern reaches of New Mexico, according to authorities.
That has reignited a debate over whether the predators should be confined to a certain stretch of the southwestern U.S. as wildlife managers work to boost the population.
Conservation advocates on Thursday asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish to allow the wolf to continue on her journey beyond the arbitrary Interstate 40 boundary that currently limits the species' recovery.
Authorities said a recent map showed the wolf near Taos and south of the Colorado border.
The wolf, from the Rocky Prairie Pack of Arizona, has been named "Asha" by schoolchildren.
"This wolf's name, Asha, means 'hope' in Sanskrit," Mary Katherine Ray, Wildlife Chair for the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club, said in a statement. "What could be more fitting for a wolf exploring and surviving the big wide world on her own as wolves historically once did throughout the southwest?"
Wolf-livestock conflicts have been a major challenge of the reintroduction program over the past two decades, with ranchers saying the killing of livestock by wolves remains a threat to their livelihood despite efforts by wildlife managers to scare the wolves away and reimburse some of the losses.
Collared wolves have trekked north of I-40 only a handful of times since 2015, when the Mexican Wolf Experimental Population Area was established, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Environmentalists have been fighting in federal court to overturn a requirement that the Fish and Wildlife Service capture wolves that roam north of I-40.
The Mexican wolf is the rarest subspecies of gray wolf in North America. According to the most recent survey released in early 2022, there were at least 196 Mexican wolves in the wild in New Mexico and Arizona. It marked the sixth straight year the population had increased.
Feds send $930 million to curb 'crisis' of US West wildfires - By Matthew Brown Associated Press
The U.S. is directing $930 million toward reducing wildfire dangers in 10 western states by clearing trees and underbrush from national forests, the Biden administration announced Thursday, as officials struggle to protect communities from destructive infernos being made worse by climate change.
Under a strategy now entering its second year, the U.S. Forest Service is trying to prevent out-of-control fires that start on public lands from raging through communities. But in an interview with The Associated Press, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack acknowledged that the shortage of workers that has been plaguing other sectors of the economy is hindering the agency's wildfire efforts.
He warned that "draconian" budget cuts floated by some Republicans, who control the U.S. House, could also undermine the Democratic administration's plans. Its goal is to lower wildfire risks across almost 80,000 square miles (200,000 square kilometers) of public and private lands over the next decade.
The work is projected to cost up to $50 billion. Last year's climate and infrastructure bills combined directed about $5 billion to the effort.
"There's one big 'if,' " Vilsack said. "We need to have a good partner in Congress."
He added that fires on public lands will continue to threaten the West, after burning about 115,000 square miles (297,000 square kilometers) over the past decade — an area larger than Arizona — and destroying about 80,000 houses, businesses and other structures, according to government statistics and the nonpartisan research group Headwaters Economics.
Almost 19,000 of those structures were torched in the 2018 Camp Fire that killed 85 people in Paradise, Calif.
"It's not a matter of whether or not these forests will burn," Vilsack said. "The crisis is upon us."
The sites targeted for spending in 2023 cover much of Southern California, home to 25 million people; the Klamath River Basin on the Oregon-California border; San Carlos Apache Reservation lands in Arizona; and the Wasatch area of northern Utah, a tourist draw with seven ski resorts. Other sites are in Idaho, Oregon, Nevada, Washington state, Colorado, New Mexico and Montana.
The idea is to remove many trees and other flammable material from hotspots that make up only a small portion of fire-prone areas but account for about 80% of risk to communities. Vilsack said officials will seek to restore " old-growth forest conditions " — meaning fewer but larger trees that can be resilient against fires.
House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Bruce Westerman said he was glad to see the Biden administration taking "long-overdue action" and streamlining forest management rules. But Westerman questioned why more money will be spent this year even as new projects include fewer acres compared with last year, according to administration documents.
"The Forest Service is still recklessly spending valuable taxpayer dollars with little to no accountability," the Arkansas Republican said in a statement.
A Vilsack aide said there were "no apples-to-apples comparisons" between costs among the landscapes, which differ in terrain, access and the state of the forest. Staffing and equipment issues also factor in, and the differences can make some areas more expensive and time-intensive, spokesperson Marissa Perry said.
"We work to treat not only the most acreage we can, but where it makes the most difference with the resources available," she said.
Some said the administration remained overly focused on stopping fires — a near-impossible goal — with not enough money and resources going to communities and people at risk, including the elderly and people with medical conditions or disabilities.
"Given the scale of how much needs to be done, we are just skimming the surface," said Headwaters Economics researcher Kimiko Barrett. "Risks are increasing at a scale and magnitude that we haven't seen historically. You're seeing entire neighborhoods devastated."
Vilsack said the projects announced so far will help reduce wildfire risk to around 200 communities in the western U.S.
Warming temperatures have dried out the region's landscape and driven insect outbreaks that have killed millions of trees — ideal conditions for massive wildfires.
The impacts stretch across North America, with smoke plumes at the height of wildfire season in the U.S. and Canada sometimes causing unhealthy pollution thousands of miles away on the East Coast.
Last year's work by the Forest Service included tree thinning and controlled burns across 5,000 square miles (13,000 square kilometers) of forest nationwide, Vilsack said.
"We're very targeted in saying, 'Here's where we need to go to reduce the risk,'" Forest Service Deputy Chief Chris French told the AP.
But a key piece of the administration's strategy — intentionally setting small fires to reduce the amount of vegetation available to burn in a major blaze — already has encountered problems: The program was suspended three months last spring after a devastating wildfire sparked by the federal government near Las Vegas, New Mexico, burned across more than 500 square miles (1,295 kilometers) in the southern reaches of the Rocky Mountains.
It was the state's largest fire on record, and several hundred homes were destroyed. Experts have said the environmental damage will linger generations.
Congress has approved nearly $4 billion in assistance for the fire's victims, including $1.5 billion in the massive spending bill passed last month.
"If you're a community, you're going to have to worry about not just nature's fires, but the government's fires, too," said Andy Stahl, executive director of the advocacy group Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. "New Mexico taught us that."