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New Mexico Abolishes Death Penalty; Similar Efforts Fail in Other States

by David M. Reutter

“Regardless of my personal opinion about the death penalty, I do not have confidence in the criminal justice system as it currently operates to be the final arbiter when it comes to who lives and who dies for their crime,” said New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, upon signing a bill to repeal the state’s death penalty.

The repeal becomes effective July 1, 2009, but will not affect the two prisoners currently sitting on New Mexico’s death row. For crimes committed after July 1, the maximum sentence will be life without the possibility of parole.

Gov. Richardson, who formerly supported capital punishment, said that signing the bill was the “most difficult deci-sion” of his political life, but that “the potential for ... execution of an innocent person stands as anathema to our very sen-sibilities as human beings.”

After visiting the state prison that houses the death chamber and touring the maximum security unit where life-sentenced prisoners will be housed under the new law, Richardson said, “My conclusion was those cells are something that may be worse than death. I believe this is a just punishment.”

As of the day he signed the bill, Richardson’s office had received 10,847 phone calls, e-mails and walk-in com-ments from people voicing their opinion on the legislation to abolish the death penalty, which passed with a Senate vote of 24-18 after clearing the House. Of those comments, 8,102 were in support of repealing the death penalty and 2,745 were against.

The American Civil Liberties Union applauded the governor’s actions. “Gov. Richardson’s decision today to sign the bill abolishing the death penalty in New Mexico is a historic step and a clear sign that the United States continues to make significant progress toward eradicating capital punishment once and for all,” the ACLU said in a written statement. It con-tinued by saying Richardson’s “courageous and enlightened decision” sends a powerful message that Americans “need to take a hard look at our error-prone, discriminatory, and bankrupting system of capital punishment.”

In addition to his concern that minorities are “over-represented in the prison population and on death row,” Richardson said the death penalty “did not seem to me to be good moral leadership and good foreign policy.”

Capital punishment is not used in 91 countries, and according to Amnesty International, 95% of all reported execu-tions in 2008 occurred in just six nations: China, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the United States. The U.N. has called for a worldwide moratorium on capital punishment. [See: PLN, Nov. 2008, p.27].

New Mexico joins 14 other states that do not impose the death penalty; it is only the second state to abolish execu-tions since capital punishment was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976. New Jersey repealed its death penalty in December 2007. [See: PLN, June 2008, p.16].

Connecticut came close to being the third state in recent years to do away with capital punishment, when the House and Senate voted to repeal the death penalty. Governor M. Jodi Rell immediately vetoed the bill, on May 22, 2009.

“I appreciate the passionate beliefs of people on both sides of the death penalty debate. I fully understand the con-cerns and deeply held convictions of those who would like to see the death penalty abolished in Connecticut,” Rell stated. “However, I also fully understand the anguish and outrage of the families of victims who believe, as I do, that there are certain crimes so heinous – so fundamentally revolting to our humanity – that the death penalty is warranted.”

State Rep. Michael Lawlor called Connecticut’s death penalty “a false promise” and criticized Rell’s immediate veto. The bill would have imposed life-without-parole sentences, and would not have applied to prisoners currently sentenced to death.

Several states, including Kansas, Maryland and Montana, are also considering abolishing capital punishment, partly due to financial reasons. The ACLU of Northern California, for example, estimates that California could save $1 billion over five years by repealing the death penalty.

A Colorado bill to do away with capital punishment and use the savings to pay for cold-case investigations passed the state House by one vote last April, but was killed in the Senate on an 18-17 vote on May 6, 2009. Four Democrats crossed party lines to oppose the legislation.

Some critics contend that imposing life-without-parole sentences is simply trading one form of the death penalty for another, with lifers eventually dying in prison. On May 20, 2009, the Other Death Penalty Project (ODPP), a Lansing, Cali-fornia-based group, mailed over 900 organizing kits to prisons nationwide. The ODPP “aims to end the sentence of life without the possibility of parole, which currently affects more than 33,000 prisoners in this country,” and “plans to chal-lenge those in the anti-death penalty movement who advocate for life without the possibility of parole as an alternative to the more obvious, traditional forms of execution.”

Sources: CNN, Associated Press, Hartford Courant,

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