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…
Bill Richardson admits doubt about death-penalty decision
SANTA FE — The Bill Richardson who announced a repeal of the death penalty in New Mexico on Wednesday was not the same Bill Richardson who usually shows up for face time with the news media.
The Richardson who usually hosts the media goes out of his way to convince you of the rightness of his decision. He is confident, bigger than life and even becomes jocular at times; he is a master of the room.
The Richardson who sat before a phalanx of news media Wednesday was anything but. At moments he appeared still to be working out the issue in his head and doubt occasionally crept in to darken his face.
Are there people who deserve the death penalty? Is it right for the state to execute a killer? What about the flaws in the system? And what of the United States’ general approval of the death penalty when compared to most Western democracies?
Richardson struggled to balance all those competing interests, but appeared unable to arrive at an absolutely satisfactory answer.
“I believe it’s the right decision. My conscience feels good, but I am still troubled,” Richardson said, by way of explaining his decision to repeal the death penalty.
“I still wonder if… I know we did the right thing, but I am not totally, totally convinced that every argument that I have just said to you is accurate,” he said.
It was a surprising moment for Richardson, who made the admission before a bevy of repeal supporters. Just moments earlier, Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of the Diocese of Las Cruces had praised Richardson for his action.
“We cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing those who kill,” Ramirez said.
Richardson had begun his news conference Wednesday by alluding to a six-year evolution he had experienced regarding the death penalty.
Richardson for years had supported the death penalty, and apparently still does for certain cases, including for Michael Paul Astorga. Astorga is charged with killing Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Deputy James McGrane Jr.
But Richardson had come to the conclusion that the system was flawed.
“The sad truth is the wrong person can still be convicted in this day and age, and in cases where that conviction carries with the ultimate sanction, we must have ultimate confidence – I would say certitude – that the system is without flaw or prejudice,” he said.
The governor added, “And it bothers me greatly that minorities are over-represented in the prison population and on death row.”
Richardson also said the U.S. was out of step with most Western democracies, including those in the European Union, which has banned capital punishment.
And he admitted his legacy factored into his calculus. He acknowledged that he hoped his administration would be remembered for “doing the right thing, making decisions on matters of conscience.”
Once he had decided there were too many reasons to discontinue the death penalty, he wanted to satisfy himself that life without parole was a suitable punishment for those who commit heinous crimes.
To discern an answer, Richardson said he had toured New Mexico’s death row Wednesday, even exchanging a nod with one of New Mexico’s two death row inmates.
“I went to the prison today to look at the conditions, the death chamber,” he said. “I wanted to see what imprisonment for life would look like. Those cells are worse than death.”
Prisoners sentenced to life without parole beginning on July 1, when the law takes effect, will spend 23 hours out of every day in them.
Richardson said correctional officers told him they thought the death penalty was a deterrent against inmate violence within the prisons.
He said he accepted their opinions. Those opinions and the visit to death row had been part of his effort to discern what to do, he said. In addition, he met with the public Monday, while his office took nearly 12,000 calls and e-mails on the issue, with more than two-thirds of individuals favoring the repeal.
One of the women with whom he had met Monday — the day he opened his office to the public — was the mother of Dena Lynn Gore, the little girl Terry Clark raped and murdered. Terry Clark is the only man New Mexico has executed since 1960.
“It was a very poignant moment,” Richardson said. “To the families of victims … I say to them, I hope I made the right decision. But I can assure you that the punishment that is now policy — life imprisonment without parole — is a very severe punishment. That is why I wanted to go see it today myself in the prison.”
But then the doubt crept back in.
“My decision probably is not one associated with perfection,” he said.