State rep fights to expand penalties under New Mexico’s child abuse law

SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – The suspects in the case of a 13-year-old boy found buried in northern New Mexico are charged with intentional child abuse resulting in death. It’s a charge that carries a sentence of life, but only if the child is under the age of 13.

One state lawmaker has been fighting to change that law for years.

Rep. Sarah Maestas Barnes has sponsored the same legislation since she became a lawmaker four years ago. She says 13-year-old Jeremiah Valencia’s death is the reason she won’t stop trying.

The idea is to expand Baby Brianna’s Law, the state’s statute on child abuse resulting in death named after the Las Cruces infant who died at the hands of her mother, father and uncle in 2002.

According to Maestas Barnes, as that law reads now, someone who kills a child under 12 can be sentenced to life in prison, but if the child is over 12 the max penalty is just 18 years. Maestas Barnes says that’s simply not right.

“They made this distinction in the law and it really doesn’t make a lot of sense because a child is a child. And the type of force that we be required to kill a child aged 12 years or older is so substantially greater,” she said.

When asked why this separation in the ages and sentences was done in the first place, Maestas Barnes says no one has been able to answer that for her.

Had the bill passed last year, the people accused in Jeremiah’s death could be facing life behind bars. Last year, the bill passed the House but time ran out before it could be voted on in the Senate.

The bill is being heard in its first committee on Thursday afternoon. Barnes is hopeful that this year fellow lawmakers will make it a priority.

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