New Mexico Nixes Death Penalty Amid Uptick in U.S. Executions

SANTA FE, N.M. — Gov. Bill Richardson repealed the death penalty in New Mexico as he signed legislation to replace capital punishment with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment without parole.

New Mexico is only the second state in more than 40 years to abolish the death penalty, joining 13 other states and the District of Columbia in abandoning capital punishment.

In 2007, New Jersey Gov. John Corzine signed a similar law replacing the death penalty with life imprisonment — the first such action by a state since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976.

“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 says.

Iowa and West Virginia, in 1965, were the last states to abolish capital punishment.

“If the state is going to undertake this awesome responsibility, the system to impose this ultimate penalty must be perfect and can never be wrong,” Richardson says.

More than 130 death row inmates have been exonerated in the last 10 years. Richardson also cited the overrepresentation of minorities in the prison and death row populations as a factor in his decision.

“The system is inherently defective,” Richardson says.

The New Mexico Sheriffs’ and Police Association opposed the repeal on the basis that capital punishment deters violence against law enforcement and correctional officers.

District attorneys also opposed the ban on capital punishment. The new legislation is not retroactive and will not apply to the two inmates currently on death row in the state.

“People continue to commit terrible crimes even in the face of the death penalty and responsible people on both sides of the debate disagree strongly on this issue,” Richardson says. “What we cannot disagree on is the finality of this ultimate punishment.”

As New Mexico abandoned capital punishment, lawmakers throughout the country are wrestling with the legal, financial and moral issues of capital punishment.

States including Colorado, Kansas, Maryland, Montana and New Hampshire are considering legislation to limit or repeal the use of the death penalty as they face the harsh economic realties of tightening budgetary constraints and growing spending obligations.

U.S. courts handed down 111 death sentences in 2008, the fewest since the Supreme Court re-introduced capital punishment, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

New Mexico becomes only the second state in 40 years to abolish capital punishment.

However, the United States remains among the most active capital punishment countries in the world and lawmakers in Alaska, Georgia, Nebraska and Virginia are considering legislation to reinstate or expand capital punishment.

With 20 inmates in 12 states executed in the first quarter of 2009, the total number of executions could surpass 80 by year’s end — the most since 1999, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

The increase in capital punishment activity is a direct result of the Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling that found Kentucky’s lethal injection protocols meet constitutional standards, experts say. Executions throughout the United States were on hold as states awaited a decision in the Kentucky case.

In 2008, 37 inmates were executed, the fewest since 1994. The majority of executions were carried out in southern states — Texas was responsible for 18 of the 37 executions last year — as only nine of the 36 states that retain the death penalty carried out executions in 2008.

More than 1,130 executions have been carried out in the United States since the 1970s. Texas is the most active death penalty state, having executed 435 inmates since 1976.

“Executions in the United States are increasingly a regionally isolated phenomenon,” says Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn, of Amnesty International. “Elsewhere, concerns about cost, the possibility of executing the innocent and racial bias have led to a significant decline in support for capital punishment.”

New Jersey, which reinstated the death penalty in 1982, six years after the Supreme Court reauthorization, has not carried out a death sentence since 1963.

New York has not carried out an execution since 1963 and a court-ordered moratorium has been in effect since 2004 after the New York State Supreme Court ruled the state’s capital punishment statute unconstitutional.

New Mexico has carried out only one execution since the 1960s.

“From an international human rights perspective, there is no reason the United States should be behind the rest of the world on this issue,” Richardson says. “Many of the countries that continue to support and use the death penalty are also the most repressive nations in the world.”

Worldwide, only 25 of the 59 countries that retain the death penalty carried out executions in 2008, according to Amnesty International’s annual report on capital punishment. Belarus is the only European nation that still uses the death penalty.

The five most active capital punishment nations — China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United States and Pakistan — accounted for 93 percent of 2,390 documented executions worldwide in 2008, according to the international human rights organization.

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