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Friday, January 31, 2003

Bill Would End Death Penalty

By David Miles
Journal Capitol Bureau
    SANTA FE Death-penalty opponents on Thursday renewed efforts to abolish capital punishment in New Mexico while Gov. Bill Richardson said he supports the sentence.
    Rep. Gail Beam, D-Albuquerque, on Thursday introduced a bill to repeal the state's death penalty. The legislation (HB 377) instead would give judges the option of sentencing people convicted of capital felonies to life imprisonment without possibility of release or parole.
    Beam argued the death penalty does not deter violent crime and that minorities are more likely to be sentenced to death than Anglos.
    "The time has come for us to end a practice that is inherently unjust," Beam said at a Capitol news conference, sponsored by the New Mexico Coalition to Repeal the Death Penalty.
    Convicted child killer Terry Clark, executed in Santa Fe in 2001 during the term of Republican Gov. Gary Johnson, was the first New Mexico prisoner to be put to death since 1960.
    More than 20 House members signed Beam's bill as co-sponsors.
    Similar proposals to repeal the death penalty have failed to win legislative approval in recent years.
    Johnson, Richardson's predecessor, said before leaving office last month that he would have signed a bill to abolish the death penalty. But Beam said Johnson, whose skepticism about the penalty developed late in his second term, did not assure her during last year's regular legislative session that he would sign such legislation.
    Beam said she had no regrets about not pushing harder for repealing the death penalty last year.
    "I think everything has a time, and the time is now," she said.
    Supporters of abolishing the death penalty included clergy, Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation and an Albuquerque attorney who successfully prosecuted a death penalty case.
    Randi McGinn, a former prosecutor for the Bernalillo County District Attorney's Office, said she vomited after winning the death penalty conviction of Joel Lee Compton, who was convicted of murdering Albuquerque police officer Gerald Cline.
    Compton's sentence was commuted by then-Gov. Toney Anaya in 1986.
    McGinn said four of about 16 convicts sentenced to death in New Mexico since the mid-1970s later were proven to be innocent.
    "If we can't be 100 percent certain that the people we have sentenced are guilty, then we can't impose the ultimate penalty," McGinn said.
    Richardson on Thursday said he supports the state's death penalty but said there also must be adequate safeguards to ensure that it is applied fairly and that DNA evidence is used properly.
    "I support the death penalty for the most heinous of crimes," Richardson said. "I've always done that as a member of Congress, and that is my view."
    Richardson also said he continues to support expanding the death penalty to make the murder of a child younger than 11 years old eligible for capital punishment.