The End of the Death Penalty?
A bill to repeal capital punishment in New Mexico breathes new life into a fierce debate
In 2005 and 2007, Gail Chasey’s legislation suffered stinging defeats.
The Democratic representative from Albuquerque saw her bill to end capital punishment languish in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Even if her bill had made it to a full vote in the Senate, Chasey admits she’s not sure it would have gotten to Gov. Bill Richardson’s desk. “We may have lost it if we had gotten it to the Senate floor,” Chasey says. "I'll tell you now; we have the votes this year in the Senate.”
Rep. Chasey’s bill to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole made it past the House in 2005 and 2007. Chasey expects her legislation to clear the House again this year. Several new senators, Chasey says, should vote in favor of her bill.
If the measure makes it through the Legislature, the question then becomes: Will it be signed by Richardson? The governor’s spokesperson, Gilbert Gallegos, declined to comment. In an e-mail, Gallegos wrote that the governor typically refrains from commenting on legislation he has not proposed.
Chasey says the chances of Richardson looking kindly on a bill ending the death penalty are better than the last two years it was introduced. “I just think Gov. Richardson preferred not to have the bill on his desk because of his interest in the presidential campaign,” Chasey says. “Things are different now because he's not a candidate any longer.”
When Richardson was a congressman more than a decade ago, he supported the death penalty. Chasey says evidence has come to light since then that she hopes will sway his opinion.
Viki Elkey, coordinator of the New Mexico Coalition to Repeal the Death Penalty, says more than 130 death row inmates have been exonerated nationwide since 1976. “These are people who a jury of their peers felt were guilty and deserved to die,” Elkey says. “The problem is, we never know if we have the right person.”
Republican Rep. Richard Berry says the fact that inmates have been exonerated should be viewed as a positive development, not a negative one. He also says he has yet to see any conclusive evidence that an innocent person has been put to death. “Through my research, I haven't found any incidents since the 1800s that a person has been found to be innocent after they've been executed,” Berry says. “We have had folks that have been removed from death row because of new evidence. To that I say, Great, that's good.”
Berry also contends some studies show the number of innocent people removed from death row is much lower than 130. Berry says some researchers place the number closer to 17.
“The problem is, we never know if we have the right person.”
Viki Elkey, coordinator of the New Mexico Coalition to Repeal the Death Penalty
Chasey says poor, ethnic minorities from rural areas disproportionately face the death penalty in New Mexico.
Chasey adds that the murder victim’s race plays the most important role in determining whether district attorneys seek the death penalty. Studies, such as Raymond Paternoster’s “Prosecutorial Discretion in Requesting the Death Penalty: A Case of Victim-Based Racial Discrimination,” bolster Chasey’s claim. If the victim is white, Chasey says prosecutors are much more likely to push for capital punishment. If the victim is an ethnic minority, the district attorney is much less apt to pursue the death penalty.
Death penalty supporters insist capital punishment’s ability to prevent crime provides a key reason for it to stay on the books. But opponents steadfastly deny the death penalty deters future violent acts.
Chasey says the 14 states without the death penalty have lower homicide rates than the 36 that do. She also asserts that sociologists generally agree the death penalty doesn’t deter violent crime.
Republican Rep. Kathy McCoy doesn’t buy it. “I simply don't believe that it's not a deterrent,” McCoy says. “There are all these studies that get thrown at us, but I just have to think that there's certainly a deterrence factor.”
Rep. Berry points to an overall drop during the last 60 years in homicide rates in states that have the death penalty. “If we have convicted a murderer of a heinous crime, and we fail to execute that person,” Berry says, “then we fail to do all we can to deter future murderers.”
Both sides of the death penalty debate agree capital punishment cases cost huge sums of taxpayer dollars. The state spends millions each year on lawyers’ fees and court costs associated with death penalty litigation. The appeals process in these cases adds to the financial burden. Most of the costs come from the unique trial setup, says Elkey, coordinator of the New Mexico Coalition to Repeal the Death Penalty. Capital punishment cases require two trials. The first determines whether the defendant is guilty, and the second decides whether the death penalty is warranted. Expenses also mount because before the trial begins, jurors who don’t approve of capital punishment must be weeded out.
Rep. McCoy says since costs are a major concern, streamlining the appeals process should be prioritized. “I think it's the legal system that needs to be reformed rather than removing the death penalty,” she says.
Republican Sen. Sue Wilson Beffort’s personal experience colors her stance on the death penalty. Beffort says she was close to the family of Kenn and Noel Johnson, who were murdered by William Wayne Gilbert in New Mexico in the early '80s. Gilbert received a death sentence, but it was later commuted to life in prison by then Gov. Toney Anaya. “That person should have gotten the death penalty,” Beffort says. “It puts closure to the grieving process.”
Elkey says her organization works with several families of murder victims who oppose the death penalty. “Our campaign slogan is, ‘Putting victims’ families first,’ ” Elkey says. “For them it’s the feeling that, My loved one is not going to be brought back by killing somebody.”