Published on
the New Mexico Independent

Richardson Abolishes N.M. Death Penalty

New Mexico becomes the 15th state to ban capital punishment

Trip Jennings

SANTA FE — Tonight, Gov. Bill Richardson signed his name to a law that abolishes the death penalty in New Mexico, saying, “This has been the most difficult decision of my political career.”

With his signature, Richardson made the Land of Enchantment the 15th U.S. state to ban capital punishment and pushed it into the worldwide community of states and nations that have abolished the death penalty, including many countries in the European Union.

“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,” Richardson said. “If the State is going to undertake this awesome responsibility, the system to impose this ultimate penalty must be perfect and can never be wrong.”

The news excited supporters who had been pushing for the repeal.

“This is a great day for New Mexico” said Juan Melendez, who spent 18 years on Florida’s death row before being exonerated of a murder he didn’t commit. Melendez, who lobbied lawmakers this year, lives in New Mexico now. In his case, the real killer confessed, making him the 99th person exonerated across the nation, he said.

Richardson’s decision, Melendez said, can help teach “the children that killing is wrong.”

He also said that New Mexico’s example will serve as inspiration for other Western states that are looking at repealing the death penalty, including Colorado.

“Gov. Richardson’s courageous and enlightened decision should send a powerful message to other states, governors and Americans about the need to take a hard look at our error-prone, discriminatory and bankrupting system of capital punishment,” John Holdridge, director of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project, said in a release.

“It is a system incapable of ensuring that innocent lives are not unjustly taken. It is a system plagued by racial, economic and geographic discrimination. And it is a system that police chiefs, criminologists and statistical experts around the country agree does not deter crime. Gov. Richardson deserves enormous credit for acting in the best interests of the people of his state and the people of this country,” the release continued.

The law also creates a sentence of life without parole to replace the death penalty for the most heinous crimes.

The governor’s decision came after New Mexicans by the thousands called, e-mailed and visited with him over the weekend after the Senate passed HB285 by a vote of 24-18 on Friday.

Of more than 11,760 calls, e-mails and walk-ins on legislation, 8,718 were for repeal compared to 3,046 against, the governor’s office said Wednesday afternoon.

Among those urging Richardson to sign the bill was Lt. Gov. Diane Denish.


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“I support replacing the death penalty with a sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole,” Denish said in a news release Wednesday. “If you’ve committed murder, you will be behind bars the rest of your life, no exceptions. I will continue working with our police officers and prosecutors and with victims’ families to make sure justice is served.”

The lead up to Richardson’s decision attracted attention across the country as well as beyond its borders.

Viki Elkey of the New Mexico Coalition to Repeal the Death Penalty said Wednesday she had conducted more than 50 media interviews in recent days. And most of the reporters she spoke to hailed from European countries.

The respected British magazine, The Economist, exemplified the interest European countries have in the death penalty. The magazine had a story about the U.S. considering the abolishment of the death penalty, including New Mexico.

New Mexico’s repeal is part of a larger national trend, partly because of the number of death row inmates who have been exonerated in recent years, according to supporters.

About 130 people in 26 states have been exonerated since the early 1970s, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. That number includes four people from New Mexico.

Another factor driving other states to consider abolishing the death penalty is the cost of prosecuting capital murder. Appeals over a several-year period often drive up the costs, say death penalty opponents. The dollars-and-cents argument comes at a time when the economy is in a shambles and many states are struggling to balance their budgets, including New Mexico.

New Mexico has executed one prisoner since 1976 — Terry Clark in 2001.

Opponents have argued unsuccessfully that abolishing the death penalty would remove a deterrent to heinous crimes. They also said a repeal would amount to a rollback of thousands of years of practice and would put police and correctional officers in harm’s way. Richardson acknowledged them in his announcement, saying, “Yes, the death penalty is a tool for law enforcement. But it’s not the only tool. For some would-be criminals, the death penalty may be a deterrent. But it’s not, and never will be, for many, many others.”

Opponents also have recalled crimes striking in their horror, including Terry Clark’s rape and murder of Dena Lynn Gore, a little girl he killed.

New Mexico has executed one prisoner since 1976 — Terry Clark in 2001.

Other U.S. states considering whether to abolish the death penalty include Utah and Colorado, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

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