Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Committee OKs Death Penalty Repeal


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Committee OKs Death Penalty Repeal

By Dan Boyd
Journal Capitol Bureau
SANTA FE — The latest effort to repeal New Mexico's death penalty edged past a key legislative gatekeeper on Monday and headed for a crucial Senate vote.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 6-5 in favor of replacing the death penalty with life in prison without parole, advancing the measure to the full Senate.
Passage by the 42-member Senate during the 12 days remaining in the legislative session would send the measure to Gov. Bill Richardson, whose past support for the death penalty may have softened. Approval of the legislation would make New Mexico the 15th state in the nation to abolish capital punishment.
"We are cautiously optimistic about the vote on the floor," said Michelle Giger, a member of the New Mexico branch of Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation. "We have a way better chance than we did before."
All four Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee voted against the bill Monday and were joined by Sen. Richard Martinez, D-EspaƱola. The six other Democrats on the committee voted for the bill.
"I do believe that the death penalty is a deterrent," Martinez said. "In my heart, I think it is."
The measure to repeal the death penalty — House Bill 285 — passed the House of Representatives 40-28 on Feb. 11, and a full Senate vote could come later this week.
Although Richardson previously has opposed attempts to abolish the death penalty, he's staying open to the idea this time around, said Eric Witt, Richardson's legislative liaison.
"The governor continues to weigh all sides on this issue," Witt said Monday. "I don't expect him to make up his mind until, and if, it gets to his desk."
Among those arguing to repeal the New Mexico death penalty Monday was Sam Millsap, a former district attorney in San Antonio, Texas, who told committee members he harbors doubts about whether a man executed under his watch in 1993 was actually guilty.
"I oppose the death penalty because my experience shows me the greatest criminal justice system in the world is simply not competent to decide who may live and who may die," said Millsap, a former death penalty supporter.
Opponents of repeal who testified Monday said they believe having the death penalty serves as a deterrent and raised questions about the argument that doing away with it would save the state money.
"We will continue to pay defense attorneys who are trying to get people off life without parole," said Lemuel Martinez, who represents Valencia, Sandoval and Cibola counties as New Mexico's 13th Judicial District Attorney.
Twenty-six people have been executed in New Mexico since 1912. However, the state hasn't executed an inmate since 2001, when Terry Clark received a lethal injection for abducting and murdering 9-year-old Dena Lynn Gore in Artesia.
Two individuals are now on death row — Robert Fry of Farmington and Timothy Allen of Bloomfield.
There have been repeated efforts in New Mexico to repeal the death penalty, but supporters say 2009 may represent their best chance yet. Democrats increased their numbers in the 2008 elections and now outnumber Republicans 72-40 in the Legislature. Meanwhile, cost-savings arguments, stemming mostly from the expense of lengthy death penalty appeals and legal work, might be carrying greater weight given the troubled state of economy.
"We're very optimistic," said Allen Sanchez, executive director of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, which supports a repeal of the death penalty.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, has introduced legislation that would provide $1.5 million annually in compensation for murder victims' families, and said doing away with the death penalty doesn't equate to greater leniency.
"We are not excusing terribly violent murders, by any means," Chasey said. "We believe society should be protected."
Opponents of the bill, including Senate Minority Whip William Payne, R-Albuquerque, aren't convinced.
"The problem I've always had with this bill is the police officers and the corrections officers," Payne said. "We may lock (those convicted) away for life, but we don't lock them away from people for life."