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Lucas Ian Coshenet/AP
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson

New Mexico Becomes 15th State to Abolish Capital Punishment

March 23, 2009 12:29 PM
by Liz Colville
Will Gov. Bill Richardson's decision to repeal the death penalty in New Mexico inspire other states to follow suit?

A System That “Can Never Be Perfect”

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Though Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico has supported the death penalty in the past, he has chosen to abolish the practice, citing the fact that DNA evidence “had shown that innocent people had been sentenced to death in the past,” the BBC reported late last week. Life imprisonment will replace the death penalty in the state starting on July 1.

New Mexico is now the 15th state to have gotten rid of capital punishment, The Associated Press notes. But after New Jersey in 2007, it is only the second state to abolish it since the Supreme Court reinstated states’ rights to impose capital punishment in 1976.

New Mexico has only exercised the death penalty once since 1960, the AP adds, in the case of child killer Terry Clark, who was executed in 2001. The state’s outgoing law allowed the death penalty to be applied “in cases where children, law enforcement and correctional officials, and witnesses were murdered.”

John Holdridge, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Capital Punishment Project, called Gov. Richardson’s decision “courageous and enlightened” in a statement on the ACLU Web site, saying the decision will “send a powerful message to other states, governors and Americans.” Several other states are also considering repealing death penalty laws this year, the statement notes.

New Mexico district attorneys and the state’s Sheriffs’ and Police Association opposed Richardson’s decision, the AP reports. The Sheriffs’ and Police Association contends that the death penalty helps prevent violence against prison employees, and the DA’s office called it a “useful prosecutorial tool,” according to the Post.

Historical Context: Key death penalty legislation

In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled in three major cases—Furman v. Georgia, Jackson v. Georgia and Branch v. Texas—that the death penalty law had been applied arbitrarily, in the latter two cases suggesting that racial discrimination was at play. The ruling overturned the death sentences of all three defendants, along with those of 629 inmates nationwide.

Over the next four years, legislators modified capital punishment laws, adding aggravating and mitigating provisions to ensure that the death penalty would be applied fairly. The Supreme Court approved new laws in 1976, thus reinstating capital punishment.

In a landmark move in 2000, Gov. George Ryan of Illinois commuted the sentences of 167 death row prisoners due to “the demon of error” in the capital punishment system. The Republican governor’s decision was prompted by numerous cases of Illinois death row inmates being exonerated. Reports of widespread prosecutorial misconduct were published in a four-piece series in the Chicago Tribune.

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Related Topic: Supreme Court upholds lethal injection protocol

Recent debate over the use of lethal injection as a method of capital punishment came to a head in the 2008 Supreme Court case of Baze v. Rees. The court acknowledged that while painfully botched executions had occurred through legal injection, the method did not pose “substantial risk of serious harm.” States had halted capital punishment rulings while awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision, and many resumed them after this ruling.

Reference: History of the death penalty

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