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Gov. Richardson signed legislation late Wednesday repealing the death penalty in New Mexico.
Richardson made the decision, he said, after going to the state penitentiary, where he saw the death chamber and visited the maximum security unit where those sentenced to life without parole could be housed.
“My conclusion was those cells are something that may be worse than death,” he said. “I believe this is a just punishment.”
Los Alamos Police Chief Wayne Torpy discussed the governor’s decision during an interview this morning.
“As a law enforcement person I’ve always supported the death penalty for the most heinous crimes, however, it’s been my opinion that the death penalty loses its value if it’s not applied in a timely manner,” Torpy said. “It’s been years since the death penalty has been exercised in New Mexico and that makes it lose its deterrent value. It’s diminished and to deter criminal activities, we need to enforce stronger sentences across the board.”
The repeal, which passed the state Senate by a 24-18 vote Friday and was approved by the House a month earlier, takes effect July 1.
It applies to crimes committed after that date. Once in effect, the most severe punishment will be a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Richardson, a Democrat who formerly supported capital punishment, said signing the bill was the “most difficult decision” of his political life but that “the potential for ... execution of an innocent person stands as anathema to our very sensibilities as human beings.”
New Mexico is now the second state in the nation to ban executions since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty 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 told a news conference in the state Capitol.
With Richardson signing the measure, New Mexico joins 14 other states that do not impose capital punishment. New Jersey, in 2007, was the first and only other state to outlaw capital punishment since its reinstatement by the Supreme Court.
Since 1960, New Mexico has executed only one person, child killer Terry Clark, in 2001. Under the outgoing law, the death sentence could be applied in cases where children, law enforcement and correctional officials, and witnesses were murdered.
The sentences of two men currently on death row will not be affected by the new law.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, former President Jimmy Carter and Lt. Gov. Diane Denish were among those who called on Richardson to sign the bill. The governor also said his solicitation for input from residents received 12,000 responses by phone, e-mail and visits and that more than three-fourths were in favor of repeal.
Roman Catholic Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of the Diocese of Las Cruces said that by repealing the punishment,
Richardson “has made New Mexico a leader in turning away from the death penalty with all its moral problems and issues of fairness and justice.”