Death Penalty Repeal in the Land of Enchantment

New Mexico is known for its breathtaking mountain ranges and vast deserts; its Carlsbad Caverns National Park and Inscription Rock at El Morro; its 13,161 foot tall Wheeler Peak; its mineral wealth contributing to its economy, notably its uranium, manganese and copper; its leadership in exploring ways to harness and develop solar and geothermal energy; and its vivid landscapes of beiges, blues, grays, burnt oranges and earthen browns which inspired the creative genius of such artists as New Mexican resident Georgia O'Keefe.

But as of March 18, 2009, New Mexico is known for something even more inspiring. It is the first Western state to repeal the death penalty in the 32 years since executions resumed in the U.S., and the second state in two years to do so including New Jersey in 2007.

The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty joins people around the country and the world in celebrating New Mexico's death penalty repeal. Like the wise legislators in New Jersey and New York legislators who refused to revive their death penalty statute, New Mexico's lawmakers concluded that they'd had enough of a system that does not deter murders, is unfairly and unequally applied, risks wrongful convictions, and diverts resources from more effective crime fighting and from programs that serve murder victims' families. Reviewing the flaws inherent in capital punishment, New Mexico's legislators knew that they could no longer justify maintaining it.

Governor Richardson and New Mexico's lawmakers acted as responsible, practical and pragmatic stewards of their constituents' ultimate well being and tax dollars. Particularly, in these economic times, government must take a careful look at all of its programs and policy choices, and given limited resources, retain only what works and works well. After taking a careful look, New Mexico concluded, as have other states, that the death penalty drains resources from state coffers which could otherwise be used for much-needed increases in budgets for law enforcement, neighborhood policing, adult and juvenile crime prevention, substance abuse treatment and counseling, as substance abuse often leads to criminal activity, and murder victims' families' support programs.

Repealing the death penalty in New Mexico creates the space for a serious conversation about how to respond more effectively to murder victims' family members' needs, and the needs of the community at large. In fact, the repeal bill's sponsor Representative Gail Chasey has pledged to enact legislation that would among other things, allow murder victims' families time off to attend judicial proceedings and would establish a Murder Victim Family Services Fund. We pledge our wholehearted support to those efforts.

The capital punishment issues which played a central role in Governor Richardson's decision to abolish it were those of wrongful executions and people of color disproportionately sentenced to death.

"Even with advances in DNA and other forensic evidence technologies, we can't be 100-percent sure that only the truly guilty are convicted of capital crimes," Governor Richardson's signing statement reads. "Evidence, including DNA evidence, can be manipulated. Prosecutors can still abuse their powers. We cannot ensure competent defense counsel for all defendants. The sad truth is the wrong person can still be convicted in this day and age, and in cases where that conviction carries with it the ultimate sanction, we must have ultimate confidence - I would say certitude - that the system is without flaw or prejudice. Unfortunately, this is demonstrably not the case. And it bothers me greatly that minorities are overrepresented in the prison population and on death row."

Thomas Jefferson once said that "The care of human life and happiness and not their destruction is the final and only legitimate object of good government." Or, as noted in Governor Richardson's signing statement, "In a society which values individual life and liberty above all else, where justice and not vengeance is the singular guiding principle of our system of criminal law, the potential for wrongful conviction and, God forbid, execution of an innocent person stands as anathema to our very sensibilities as human beings."

New Mexico's reputation as "The Land of Enchantment" is further enhanced by abolishing the death penalty. It is expected that other death penalty states will follow New Mexico's example.