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Thursday, March 19, 2009
Richardson Signs Bill Abolishing Death Penalty in N.M.
By Dan Boyd
Journal Capitol Bureau
SANTA FE Gov. Bill Richardson went to Mass on Wednesday morning, then went to inspect the state penitentiary's high-security area and execution chamber.
Then, shortly after 6 p.m., the governor signed legislation to repeal New Mexico's death penalty.
He called it the toughest decision he had ever made.
Richardson said he wrestled with his conscience and heard arguments from a wide range of people on both sides of the issue, including the parents of a slain deputy he recently honored with the dedication of a memorial.
In the end, the second-term Democratic governor said he didn't have confidence in the criminal justice system to decide who lives and who dies.
"Faced with the reality that our system for imposing the death penalty can never be perfect, my conscience compels me to replace the death penalty with a solution that keeps society safe," Richardson said.
New Mexico becomes the 15th state without capital punishment.
After signing House Bill 285, which replaces the death penalty with a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole, Richardson told reporters he still harbored doubts.
"I know we did the right thing, but I'm not totally convinced every argument I made to you is accurate," he said.
Richardson, a Roman Catholic, recounted his attendance at Mass and trip to the penitentiary.
"I wanted to see for myself the cells," Richardson said. "My conclusion is those may be something worse than death."
By 4 p.m., he had made up his mind.
With the repeal, New Mexico becomes just the second state to ban executions since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.
The repeal will only apply to crimes committed on or after July 1, 2009, however, meaning the state's two current death row inmates Timothy Allen of Bloomfield and Robert Fry of Farmington could still be executed.
Richardson said Wednesday he won't commute their sentences.
New Mexico has only executed one inmate since 1960. The last execution was in 2001, when Terry Clark received a lethal injection for murdering 9-year-old Dena Lynn Gore of Artesia.
Gore's mother was among those who pleaded to keep capital punishment.
In the days leading up to his news conference to sign the death penalty repeal, Richardson heard from more than 12,00 people through phone calls, e-mails and personal meetings. More than three-quarters of those who weighed in were in favor of repeal.
The governor's signature marked the culmination of a decade-long effort by advocates to abolish capital punishment.
Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, who has spearheaded the effort and sponsored HB285, sat at Richardson's side during Wednesday's news conference and said resources that had been used to prosecute death penalty cases could now be put to better use.
"This has been a long process to come to this day," Chasey said.
Earlier Wednesday, Lt. Gov. Diane Denish issued a statement urging Richardson to sign the repeal.
"I support replacing the death penalty with a sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole," Denish said. "If you've committed murder, you will be behind bars for the rest of your life, no exceptions."
The New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops also advocated for the repeal, claiming life in prison gives convicted inmates the chance to seek redemption and ask for forgiveness.
Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of the Catholic Diocese of Las Cruces joined Richardson on Wednesday and said the legislation will help create a "culture of life" in the United States.
"We cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing those who kill," Ramirez said.
Fate of Astorga
Many law enforcement officials and prosecutors argued that getting rid of the death penalty would strip them of leverage during murder investigations and might embolden would-be killers.
Richardson said he's willing to live with criticisms, but said personal meetings with families of murder victims who urged for the death penalty to stay in place made his decision difficult.
The parents of James McGrane, a Bernalillo County Sheriff's deputy who was killed in a 2006 traffic stop in Tijeras, and Colleen Gore, the mother of Dena Lynn Gore, were among those who talked with Richardson in recent days.
"I know they will be disappointed, but I hope they realize I can only do what I think is right," Richardson said, adding he still favors the death penalty for Michael Paul Astorga, the man accused of killing McGrane.
The McGranes had argued that the potential of the death penalty was necessary to protect officers in the future.
New Mexico's bid to repeal the death penalty drew international attention in recent days.
Viki Elkey, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition to Repeal the Death Penalty, said she conducted more than 50 interviews in a two-day period leading up to Wednesday's deadline, many of them with European media outlets.
Richardson, who voted in favor of the death penalty as a member of the U.S. Congress, said joining the rest of the Western world in opposition to the death penalty factored into his decision, as did the judicial arguments.
"I hope and fervently pray it's the right decision," Richardson said.
The House passed the death penalty repeal 40-28. The Senate later voted to approve it 24-18, sending the legislation to Richardson.