Senate votes to repeal death penalty

The Associated Press

SANTA FE – The New Mexico Legislature has voted to repeal the death penalty and replace it with a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The state Senate voted 24-18 on Friday for the repeal bill, sending it to Gov. Bill Richardson for his signature.

Richardson has opposed repeal in the past but now says he would consider signing it.

“I have met with many people and will continue to consider all sides of the issue before making a decision,” the second-term Democratic governor said in a statement issued after the vote.

He would have three days – excluding Sunday – to make a decision once the bill actually reaches his desk.

The House approved the legislation a month ago.

“The tide is turning across the country, and we are part of that tide,” said Ruth Hoffman, director of Lutheran Advocacy Ministry and a longtime lobbyist against the death penalty.

The vote capped a decade of repeal efforts in New Mexico, one of 36 states with capital punishment.

“For a state to look ahead and say the death penalty is not serving the people’s needs is a very courageous thing to do,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center.

The vote also was hailed by Amnesty International USA, with executive director Larry Cox calling New Mexico “a trailblazer and a beacon of hope for everyone who believes in human rights and justice.”

There are two men on the state’s death row whose sentences would not be affected by repeal.

The state has executed one man in the past 49 years, convicted child killer Terry Clark in 2001. Nine men have been executed since the early 1930s, after the state took over responsibility for executions from county sheriffs.

New Jersey banned executions in 2007, the first state to do so since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

Opponents of the death penalty said it does not deter murder and is administered unfairly, and that there’s a risk of executing innocent people.

“As beautiful as our justice system is … it is still a justice system of human beings, and human beings make mistakes,” Sen. Cisco McSorley, an Albuquerque Democrat, said during nearly three hours of debate.

For convicted murderers, life in prison without the possibility of parole is more severe than “the luxury of death,” said Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, who sponsored the bill in the Senate.

“We’re not talking about life in prison; we’re talking about death in prison,” said Sen. Cynthia Nava, D-Las Cruces, a repeal supporter.

Death penalty supporters objected that murderers sentenced to life-without-parole could end up in the general prison population.

And locking up murderers for life could imperil corrections officers, they argued.

“There’s no incentive for not killing a guard every time you get a chance,” said Sen. Rod Adair, a Roswell Republican.

He called capital punishment “a just penalty for the most heinous of crimes in our society.”

Opponents of repeal also said the death penalty is an important tool for prosecutors, who had asked lawmakers not to pass the bill.

New Mexico was one of several states considering banning executions this year.

Repeal legislation has passed the state Senate in Montana and awaits a House hearing. The state Senate in Kansas is expected to debate a repeal bill on Monday.

On the Net:
New Mexico Legislature: www.nmlegis.gov

The death penalty repeal bill is HB285.

• The governor’s office created a hotline to get the opinions of New Mexicans on the issue.
The number is 505-476-2225.
Those wishing to weigh in via e-mail can do so through the governor’s web site at: www.governor.state.nm.us and clicking on “Contact the Governor.”
Source: The New Mexican