I am writing today to announce the closure of the New Mexico Independent. After three and a half years of operation in New Mexico, the board of the American Independent News Network, has decided to shift publication of its news…
One man will decide fate of the death penalty in New Mexico
SANTA FE — Whether capital punishment is abolished in New Mexico is in the hands of one man — Gov. Bill Richardson.
And he wasn’t saying Friday how he was leaning on the issue. Richardson has three days to figure out whether to sign or veto legislation to repeal the death penalty in the Land of Enchantment and, based on a released statement, he’ll spend most of the weekend deliberating.
“This is an extremely difficult issue that deserved the serious and thoughtful debate it received in the Legislature,” the governor said in a written statement. “I have met with many people and will continue to consider all sides of the issue before making a decision.”
Richardson’s ruminations were prompted Friday by the Senate’s voting 24-18 to repeal the death penalty after an hours-long, wide-ranging debate that alternated between dizzying flights of eloquence and illuminating history lessons that reached back through 6,000 years of human history.
Meanwhile, supporters were ecstatic that New Mexico had come close to joining 14 other states and the European Union to ban capital punishment.
“I wouldn’t want to be and I don’t think the state wants to be the one that takes the one more day the prisoner needs to find either redemption, forgiveness or justice,” said Allen Sanchez, spokesman for the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops.
New Mexico’s Catholic Church was the highest-profile supporter that pushed for the repeal of the death penalty and dismantling the state’s death row. “We want the governor to know that this does reflect the people of New Mexico,” Sanchez added.
Sanchez has lobbied Richardson on this issue throughout the 2009 legislative session and even sat down for dinner with the governor and Archbishop Michael Sheehan a few weeks back.
Sanchez wouldn’t say whether he thought Richardson was leaning one way or the other based on what he observed during the dinner, but he did say the governor “was asking the right questions.”
The arguments for and against abolishing the death penalty tracked familiar paths Friday for anyone who has heard the debate.
Opponents argued that it was a deterrent to heinous crimes and that abolishing it would amount to the equivalent of canceling thousands of years of practice and would put police and correctional officers in harm’s way.
“Western civilization tells us this is a just penalty for the most heinous crimes,” said state Sen. Rod Adair, R-Roswell, a fierce, often eloquent opponent of the repeal bill. “Many people in this country think our founders were but fools. They were wise, wise people. We lack wisdom.”
Opponents also recalled crimes striking in their horror to drive home the point that the death penalty meted out justice.
“A little girl gets on her bike and rides to a 7-11,” Jennings said. “A guy abducts her, rapes her and kills her. What chance did that girl have at life? Dena didn’t have any benefit of the doubt. Dena Lynn Gore. This vote is for her.”
But supporters responded that it was time for New Mexico to join a growing movement of states and countries that represent “an evolution of our moral conscience,” responded Sen. Jerry Ortiz Y Pino, D-Albuquerque. “We shouldn’t be responding with the lizard part of our brain like we did 6,000 years ago.”
Supporters also framed the decision to not execute a person no matter the depth of their depravity as a teachable moment for New Mexico’s youth and the state’s lawmakers could help.
“Lead by example,” said Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen.
Interspersed through the debate on the death penalty were repeated biblical references, leading one Senate wit to crack that he felt like he was somewhere other than the state Capitol.
“I have not heard so much scriptures bandied about since I went to church,” state Sen. William Payne, R-Albuquerque, said to chuckles.
New Mexico’s step toward repealing the death penalty is part of a larger national trend, supporters have said.
Part of that are the mistakes uncovered in prosecutions in recent years. 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.
Sam Milsap, a former district attorney from San Antonio, Texas, joined supporters last week and admitted that he was haunted by a man he prosecuted in the 1980s, Ruben Cantu. Cantu was executed in 1993. A witness in the original case has since recanted testimony, throwing doubt on Cantu’s guilt.
At the same time, states are looking at the bottom line. More states are looking at abolishing the death penalty and citing the cost of prosecuting capital murder. Appeals over a several-year period can 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.
In a practical sense, the repeal of the death penalty in New Mexico is more of a symbolic act than anything else.
The state has executed only one man – Clark – since 1960 and only two men, both from San Juan County, sit on New Mexico’s death row.