March 20, 2009


Balancing the interests of the state, victims' families and a flawed criminal justice system, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson signed a bill today that repealed the state's death penalty. He describes the journey that brought him to his decision:

SANTA FE — The Bill Richardson who announced a repeal of the death penalty in New Mexico on Wednesday was not the same Bill Richardson who usually shows up for face time with the news media.

The Richardson who usually hosts the media goes out of his way to convince you of the rightness of his decision. He is confident, bigger than life and even becomes jocular at times; he is a master of the room.

The Richardson who sat before a phalanx of news media Wednesday was anything but. At moments he appeared still to be working out the issue in his head and doubt occasionally crept in to darken his face.

Are there people who deserve the death penalty? Is it right for the state to execute a killer? What about the flaws in the system? And what of the United States’ general approval of the death penalty when compared to most Western democracies?

Richardson struggled to balance all those competing interests, but appeared unable to arrive at an absolutely satisfactory answer.

“I believe it’s the right decision. My conscience feels good, but I am still troubled,” Richardson said, by way of explaining his decision to repeal the death penalty.

He paused.

“I still wonder if… I know we did the right thing, but I am not totally, totally convinced that every argument that I have just said to you is accurate,” he said.

It was a surprising moment for Richardson, who made the admission before a bevy of repeal supporters. Just moments earlier, Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of the Diocese of Las Cruces had praised Richardson for his action.

“We cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing those who kill,” Ramirez said.

Richardson had begun his news conference Wednesday by alluding to a six-year evolution he had experienced regarding the death penalty.

Richardson for years had supported the death penalty, and apparently still does for certain cases, including for Michael Paul Astorga. Astorga is charged with killing Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Deputy James McGrane Jr.

But Richardson had come to the conclusion that the system was flawed.

“The sad truth is the wrong person can still be convicted in this day and age, and in cases where that conviction carries with the ultimate sanction, we must have ultimate confidence – I would say certitude – that the system is without flaw or prejudice,” he said.

About 130 people in 26 states have been exonerated since the early 1970s, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. That number includes four people from New Mexico.

The governor added, “And it bothers me greatly that minorities are over-represented in the prison population and on death row.”

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