A man convicted of killing a Bernalillo County Sheriff’s deputy avoided being sentenced to death Friday, and was instead given life in prison.
After a Santa Fe jury deliberated for three days and failed to unanimously agree on the death penalty against Michael Astorga, a judge sentenced him to life in prison plus 13 years during the sentencing phrase of the trial.
The jury had to determine whether 36-year-old would get life in prison or the death penalty for the 2006 murder of Deputy James McGrane during a traffic stop. At the time of the shooting, Astorga was wanted on a murder warrant.
He then fled to Mexico, where he was later arrested by Mexican authorities.
The family of McGrane sat quietly in the courtroom as the jury announced the outcome of their deliberations on sentencing. Following the announcement, Astorga and his attorneys shook hands before Astorga was led out of the courtroom.
Before the verdict, jurors had asked a judge what arrangements have been made to ensure their safety after they delivered it. Astorga attorney, Gary Mitchell, immediately motioned for a mistrial but was denied.
McGrane’s parents, James and Rita McGrane, said they were relieved and satisfied with the outcome, even though for years they have sought the death penalty for Astorga.
“That’s our justice system, and you have to trust the people on the jury to do the right thing,” Rita McGrane told the Albuquerque Journal after the verdict. “We have accomplished what we set out to do, and get (Astorga) off the streets.”
Astorga’s lawyers are expected to appeal the sentencing.
Friday’s sentencing was another episode in Astorga’s long saga that could have ended with the death penalty. Last year, the case ended up before the New Mexico Supreme Court over concerns that Astorga was no longer eligible for the death penalty since it has been repealed in 2009.
But the state Supreme Court ruled that he was eligible for the death penalty since the crime occurred before the repeal. The court ruled that it applied to crimes committed after July 1, 2009, when the repeal took effect.
In January, jurors in Las Cruces in another case found Astorga guilty of second-degree murder, tampering with evidence and being a felon in possession of a firearm in connection to the death of 27-year-old Candido Martinez over a car back in 2005. That trial moved to Las Cruces after a judge ruled Astorga wouldn’t get a fair trial in Albuquerque.
New Mexico has executed one person since 1960, child killer Terry Clark in 2001. Two men remain on death row, and then-Gov. Bill Richardson declined to commute their sentences after he signed the death penalty repeal.