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What do police officers, crime victim advocates, prosecutors and both Democratic and Republican state legislators have in common?Recently all of these groups came together in New Jersey to support legislation to repeal that state’s death penalty. Once the bill is signed by Gov. Jon Corzine, New Jersey will become the first state to legislatively repeal the death penalty since Iowa and West Virginia did so back in 1965.The death penalty discussion is very familiar to New Mexicans. Many readers know that our House of Representatives passed a repeal bill in 2005 and again earlier this year, also with strong bi-partisan support. We are proud that New Mexico has been at the forefront of repeal efforts and we congratulate New Jersey legislators and Governor Corzine for making this sound public policy decision.In New Jersey, a special commission was appointed to thoroughly study the pros and cons of the death penalty – and to recommend measures that could fix the state’s death penalty statutes. The study found that there was no “fix” for the death penalty. In the words of one state senator, who voted to reinstate the death penalty in New Jersey in 1982, it is a “false and ineffective choice for taxpayers and residents who have lost loved ones. It has for too long been sustained by mythology and fiction, propped up by outdated rhetoric when courage and common sense would have served us better.”The New Jersey commission ultimately recommended repeal of the death penalty because it squanders millions of tax dollars, does not deter crime, delays healing for the loved ones of murder victims and, despite many safeguards, carries no guarantee against our worst nightmare – the execution of an innocent person.We at the New Mexico Coalition to Repeal the Death Penalty salute New Jersey because their public officials have moved beyond the simple question of “Do you support or oppose capital punishment?” to the more complex question of “What is the most effective public policy alternative for our state?” Many legislators in New Jersey, both Democrats and Republicans, said that they voted for repeal, not because they thought that the death penalty was morally wrong, but because it was too expensive and served no effective public policy purpose.New Mexico and New Jersey are not the only states rethinking the nation’s experiment with capital punishment. Illinois and Maryland have had moratoriums. California, North Carolina and Tennessee have had study commissions. Nationally, death sentences are down sharply and executions have decreased since reaching a crescendo in the late 1990s.In New Mexico and across the nation, the death penalty is under increased scrutiny. As a result, the general public and elected officials are beginning to come to an inevitable conclusion: capital punishment is a fundamentally flawed public policy that is collapsing under the weight of its many blunders, biases and bureaucracies.Blunders? 126 people have been freed from death rows across the country after evidence of their innocence emerged; four of these were innocent men saved from New Mexico’s gas chamber. Biases? Try as we might, we have yet to find a way to fairly decide who gets death and who doesn’t, and who is actually executed. Bureaucracies?In New Mexico, we spend at least $3 to $4 million every year on a death penalty system that has executed one person since 1960. Since 1979, we have pursued the death penalty in 210 cases, imposed a death sentence in 15 of these cases, and seen 12 of these death sentences overturned during the post-conviction process.Is this an effective use of taxpayers’ money when police departments and crime victims have so many unmet needs?In New Jersey, regardless of their initial views on capital punishment, a panel of experts and a bipartisan group of lawmakers determined that the system is beyond repair. Isn’t it time for New Mexico to reach the same inevitable conclusion?
Patrick Tyrrell and Nancy Hewitt are co-chairs of the New Mexico Coalition to Repeal the Death Penalty.