His part in notorious case put 'cleared' man on trial for murder
Edwin L. Mechem, who was a four-time governor of New Mexico, a U.S. senator and a federal judge, is one of the giant figures in state history.
Republican Congressman Steve Pearce, without controversy or much attention, this month reintroduced legislation to name the federal courthouse in Las Cruces in honor of Mechem, right.
Pearce’s proposal should be defeated for one reason. Mechem at least once mixed politics with the judicial system, and the result was an injustice that haunts New Mexico to this day.
As the state’s newly elected 38-year-old governor in 1951, Mechem used his power to help put an innocent man on trial for murder. This happened in not just any case, but in New Mexico’s most notorious unsolved homicide.
While campaigning for governor, Mechem promised “a complete new investigation” into the 1949 rape and beating death of Ovida “Cricket” Coogler, an 18-year-old waitress from Las Cruces.
Mechem even had a suspect in mind. He referred to Coogler’s murder as “the Nuzum case.”
Jerry Nuzum, raised in Clovis, had been a star football player at New Mexico A&M, now New Mexico State University. Nuzum was a running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers when Coogler died and when Mechem cast suspicion on him.
Pro football in 1951 was not the financial or entertainment force that it is today. Nonetheless, Nuzum was a high-profile defendant.
Married and the father of two, Nuzum, right, had barhopped in Las Cruces with Coogler on the night she vanished. Rabbit hunters found her body 16 days later near Mesquite.
Sheriff Alfonso Luchini “Happy” Apodaca ignored forensic science and embraced a cover-up. He refused to authorize an autopsy.
Apodaca later went to federal prison for 11 months for trying to torture a black man, Wesley Byrd, into confessing to Coogler’s murder. Apodaca also tried to obtain a confession from Nuzum, arresting him in 1949 and jailing him for three days in secret without any charges being filed.
The district attorney, struck by the lack of evidence, set Nuzum free and proclaimed him an innocent man.
“Jerry Nuzum has definitely been cleared of in any way being at fault or having any guilty knowledge of the death of Ovida Coogler,” the prosecutor said.
Mechem, a former FBI agent and an attorney, had different ideas about Nuzum.
His campaign promise in 1950 to solve the Nuzum case had helped him win the governor's office in a state where he probably should have had no chance. Back then, New Mexico had almost 223,000 registered Democrats compared to 87,000 Republicans. Mechem defied the statistics. Voters elected him as the state’s first Republican governor since 1933.
He took office in January 1951. Three months later, two New Mexico state policemen were dispatched to suburban Pittsburgh, where they arrested Nuzum.
Then 27, Nuzum stood trial for Coogler’s murder in June 1951. So weak was the government’s case that state District Judge Charles Fowler ordered a verdict of acquittal for Nuzum after four days of testimony. Rarely does a judge take the verdict out of the jury’s hands, but Fowler saw no choice.
“Assuming that every bit of the evidence submitted by the state is true, there is nothing but conjecture, pure and simple, to connect the defendant with the death,” Fowler said.
Mechem lost interest in the Coogler case but never in politics or public service.
In the decade after Nuzum’s acquittal, Mechem won three more two-year terms as governor. Mechem resigned from office in 1962 so his lieutenant governor could appoint him to the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by the death of Dennis Chavez.
Voters in 1964 rejected Mechem as a senator. President Nixon appointed Mechem as a federal judge in 1970, and he had a distinguished career on the bench. Mechem served for more than 30 years, even working at home as a senior judge until his death in 2002.
“The man was a well-respected jurist. He was fair,” attorney Ernest Carroll of Artesia recently told me.
Carroll, 62, said he was too young to remember Nuzum’s criminal case and had not read about it.
Nuzum’s career with the Steelers ended in 1951. He remained in the Pittsburgh area, where he owned an auto dealership.
The torment of being charged in Coogler’s death hung over him. “It was hard to live down,” said Nuzum, who died in 1997 at age 73.
Mechem’s career in politics and as a judge has made him justly famous in New Mexico. But his name does not belong on a federal courthouse, a place that is supposed to symbolize fairness.
Mechem’s role in the prosecution of Jerry Nuzum subverted justice. Just as bad, Cricket Coogler’s murder was never solved. Unraveling the murder mystery was one campaign promise Mechem did not keep.