RIO RANCHO, N.M. (AP) – A judge sentenced a New Mexico man who shot and killed a suburban Albuquerque police officer to life in prison without parole Friday after hearing tearful testimony from the widow and colleagues of the fallen officer.
Andrew Romero faced a Sandoval County judge for a sentencing hearing that came a week after a jury convicted him of first-degree murder in the shooting death of Rio Rancho Officer Gregg "Nigel" Benner.
Romero was found guilty on seven other counts that included tampering with evidence and shooting from a vehicle. Judge George Eichwald sentenced Romero to an additional 23 years behind bars for those crimes.
"You will die in prison," Eichwald told Romero before handing down the sentence.
Benner's death in May 2015 and the fatal shootings of three other New Mexico police officers since then are behind a push by the state's Republican governor to reinstate the death penalty for deadly attacks on law enforcement and children. That proposal was placed before the Legislature in a special session that began Friday.
Romero, 29, shot Benner after the officer pulled over a vehicle with questionable license plates, authorities said. Tabitha Littles, Romero's girlfriend at the time, was the driver. Romero was in the passenger's seat.
Littles testified that the two had been driving all day and getting high after Romero robbed an Albuquerque fast-food restaurant and they purchased drugs. They were on their way to commit another robbery when Romero shot Benner, she said.
Littles, who initially was charged in Benner's death, pleaded guilty under a deal with prosecutors to lesser charges of conspiracy to commit armed robbery and harboring a felon in exchange for her testimony.
During Romero's trial, defense attorneys attempted to discredit her testimony by calling into question her honesty. They argued she was not truthful with authorities during their investigation.
Littles also was sentenced Friday, with the judge ordering her to serve 16 years in prison. That term could be reduced by half for good behavior during her sentence.
Romero has a lengthy criminal history that includes a manslaughter conviction. The day he shot Benner, he was wanted for failing to participate in a court-ordered drug treatment program.
Benner was an Air Force veteran who had been on the police force for four years. He was on his way home from work when he pulled over Littles and Romero.
The two fled from Benner in a short chase that led to a parking lot, where Romero opened fire, and then fled. Authorities apprehended him the next day after they say he robbed a gas station.
"You'll all go home to your family and friends. Life as you know it will continue," said Julie Benner, the officer's widow. "I will never again have that luxury ... Andrew Romero sentenced me to a life without Gregg — a life alone."