As rookie governor, he dealt with terrifying prison escape
Anything Carruthers, 73, faces on campus probably will be mild compared to the crisis that put innocent lives at risk during his first seven months as governor of New Mexico in 1987.
It started as a philosophical disagreement over the death penalty but escalated into a manhunt for killers and thieves who broke out of the state penitentiary.
The roots of the story date to November 1986, soon after Republican Carruthers, above, defeated Democrat Ray Powell in the race for governor.
As Democratic Gov. Toney Anaya prepared to leave office, he met with Carruthers to gauge his views on the death penalty. By Anaya’s account, Carruthers was unrelenting in his support of capital punishment.
Not liking what he heard, Anaya decided to leave office by starting one of the biggest controversies in state history.
New Mexico had five prisoners on death row. Anaya commuted their sentences to life in prison.
In a flash, New Mexico’s outgoing governor and its new one were in a national controversy. Carruthers took office in January 1987 with the death penalty as the hottest and most divisive issue in New Mexico.
It’s hard to believe, but the story would only get worse for Carruthers.
In early July 1987, one of the murderers removed from death row by Anaya wounded a guard with a smuggled pistol, then led a prison break in which he and six other inmates escaped.
Carruthers ordered that police “shoot to kill” if they hunted down the escaped convicts.
“He is well aware of the importance of his commutation, and he also must be aware of the consequences his escape will have on the death penalty debate,” Anaya said.
Anaya, perhaps more afraid than Carruthers was of what could happen to innocents, did not persuade Gilbert to give up.
But nearly a month after the convicts escaped, police in California captured Gilbert and two of his cohorts. One of them, James Neal Kinslow, had kidnapped five members of an Arizona family and forced them at gunpoint to drive him to California.
Kinslow had been serving three life sentences for murdering a woman and her two daughters in Chaparral, N.M.
Soon after police caught Kinslow, they tracked down Gilbert and a third escapee, this one a convicted robber, at a California motel.
The other four escapees were captured under different circumstances.
For Carruthers, his first months as governor were consumed by a political fight over the death penalty and then the escapes that put much of the West on edge.
Anaya has said many times that he made the right decision in commuting the prisoners’ death sentences, especially because advances in DNA science have showed innocent people also have landed on death row.
Carruthers stood in favor of the death penalty, but politicians who followed him tended to agree more with Anaya.
In 2009, New Mexico legislators voted to outlaw the death penalty. Then-governor Bill Richardson, a Democrat, signed bill repealing the death penalty.
Even so, legislators and Richardson left in place the death sentences of two inmates from San Juan County who were tried before the law changed.
Whatever the first six months bring to Carruthers at NMSU, it is unlikely to come close what he went through as a new governor following a controversial one.