Dentist faces death-penalty hearing

By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer

A three-day hearing to determine whether or not prosecutors can seek the death penalty against a Clovis dentist starts Monday, according to 9th Judicial District Attorney Matt Chandler.

Chandler said attorneys for both sides will also argue approximately 35 motions before the judge.

During the proceedings, known as an Ogden hearing, the state will be required to show the court there is sufficient evidence of aggravated circumstances — in this case, allegations of kidnapping and criminal sexual penetration — connected to the killing of Laura McNaughton.

Those additional elements are required to justify pursuing the death penalty in the case against James Smith, according to Chandler.

Smith, 37, is accused of killing McNaughton, 30, a year ago Sunday. Her nude body was found in a rural ditch by pheasant hunters.

An autopsy report released by the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator classified the cause of her death as strangulation with blunt force trauma to the head.

The hearing is required under New Mexico statute anytime the death penalty is sought by the state, Chandler said.

A safeguard in the process, the hearing “allows the judge to be the gatekeeper as to whether the death penalty stays on the table,” Chandler said.

“We have to meet a threshold (of evidence) to move forward,” Chandler said.

Included will be testimony by investigators and an expert pathologist in addition to the introduction of other evidence.

Defense attorneys will have an opportunity to cross-examine witnesses.
Smith’s attorney, Mark Earnest, a public defender from the capital crimes unit, declined comment.

The trial is scheduled to start June 1.