N.M. May Dodge Gay Marriage Ban

N.M. May Dodge Gay Marriage Ban|N.M. May Dodge Gay Marriage Ban

Legislation stalled in the wake of a bias attack on a young gay man

With the time left in its current session running out, the New Mexico Legislature appears unlikely to pass legislation that seeks to ban same-sex marriage.

The legislation sits before a committee in the House of Representatives after its passage last week by the Senate.

Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson has said that if the measure comes to his desk, he will sign it.

The legislative maneuvering occurs as a 21-year-old gay man, James Maestas, recovers from a brutal beating he suffered at the hands of six young men whom police have arrested on charges of aggravated battery motivated by bias against the victim’s sexual orientation.

A deputy district attorney in the case said that Maestas suffered a broken nose, facial injuries, a concussion and lung injuries from “aspirating on his own blood” after he lost consciousness.

The men charged with the attack will be the first prosecuted under New Mexico’s hate crime statute.

On March 16, Juan Rios, a spokesman for House Speaker Ben Lujan, said that it was “highly unlikely” that lawmakers in the House would conduct a floor vote on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) before the session expires.

Linda Siegle, the main legislative lobbyist for Equality New Mexico, the statewide gay and lesbian advocacy group, said that the bill was before a “kill committee,” the Consumer and Public Affairs Committee, but that “enough votes are in the House, absolutely,” for the bill to pass.

Siegle said that the Maestas beating had little or no effect on swaying legislators’ opinions on the legislation.

“Some of them haven’t even heard about it,” she said.

In the early morning hours of February 27, Maestas and a male friend, Joshua Stockam, joined several females at a Denny’s restaurant in Santa Fe. At some point, the two young men stepped outside to smoke cigarettes. Their waiter, David Trinidad, a17-year-old convicted sex offender, also joined them, just as a group of five other young men began to hurl homophobic epithets at Maestas and Stockam, who were not romantically involved. As Stockam began to make his way to the nearby La Quinta Inn where he was staying, Trinidad apparently urged the others to attack, calling out “We’re going to fuck up these faggots,” according to Shari Weinstein, the lead prosecutor in the case. At the time, Trinidad was on probation for the 2003 sexual assault of a four-year-old boy, a crime for which he was mandated to a sex offenders’ rehabilitation program.

In court records, another defendant, Gabriel Maturin, 20, alleged that he got angry after one of the victims touched him outside the restaurant before the violence began, which Stockam has denied ever happened.

Four other defendants—Joseph Cano, 18; Jonathan Valdez, 18; Paul Montoya, 20; and Isaiah Medina, 19—have also been charged with one count each of aggravated battery, conspiracy, contributing to the delinquency of a minor and criminal damage to property. Except for Trinidad, held in a juvenile detention center, the five others are out on bond or awaiting a further court hearing.

Maestas’ assailants only backed off when they had beaten Maestas unconscious. Stockam suffered minor injuries.

On March 1, Maturin, and Medina were arraigned and pleaded not guilty to charges of aggravated battery and conspiracy. A Santa Fe magistrate released them on $100,000 bond, a “high bond,” according to Weinstein. If convicted, the defendants face enhanced sentencing under the hate crimes statute.

In 2003, the second law Richardson signed after being inaugurated was the hate crime statute, which Weinstein, a veteran prosecutor, said she helped draft with the governor’s office.

“I normally don’t try cases, but I’m taking the lead on this one,” said Weinstein who said that a grand jury has indicted the six defendants on the same charges, with one charged with kidnapping for sitting on Maestas while the others assaulted him.

A Maestas family friend, Rachel Rosen, the chairwoman of the board of Equality New Mexico, said that James is out of the hospital and recuperating from his wounds. Rosen credited the attack with changing the votes of four Democrats in the Senate who switched to oppose the DOMA bill after learning of the attack. “With the real bigots, there’s no change,” said Rosen. “No Republicans voted against it.”

Last year, Richardson also signed an amendment to the state’s human rights ordinance including protections for gays, lesbians and transgendered people. But the former U.N. ambassador under President Bill Clinton voted for the federal DOMA in 1996 as a U.S. representative.

When he appeared at a vigil called by hundreds of Santa Fe residents alarmed by the Maestas attack, Richardson, his wife Barbara at his side, called for an end to such crimes against gay people and was met by yells of “No DOMA!” as he left the stage.

Richardson has said that he would support a civil unions option for gay and lesbian couples, but the Senate is seen as unlikely to support such legislation.

Frequently mentioned as a potential presidential contender for 2008, Richardson, a Latino, joins other leading Democrats angling for the nomination, including New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, in opposition to same-sex marriage but in favor of civil unions.

Nevertheless, he wins high marks from New Mexico’s gay leaders. Greg Ferran, executive director of Equality New Mexico, calls Richardson a “gay-friendly” governor, adding, “I want folks to know New Mexico is a gay-friendly state.”

If it can get through Saturday morning without passing a DOMA, New Mexico will be one of seven states without a law restricting marriage to heterosexual couples. The others are Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Wisconsin. Vermont offers same-sex couples civil unions, California and Hawaii have extensive domestic partner rights, and New Jersey has a limited statewide domestic partner law enacted by former Gov. Jim McGreevey, who acknowledged he was gay before resigning during his first term.