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The Nation

Impending Execution Rends

Crime: New Mexico, a law and order state with a great respect for life, wrestles with the issue of capital punishment.

November 04, 2001|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA FE, N.M. — As New Mexico prepares to carry out its first execution since 1960, few here question whether child killer Terry Clark should pay for his awful crime. Where the disagreement begins is whether Clark should pay with his life.

A statewide debate, spurred by the execution Tuesday, has refocused attention on capital punishment in a place that has for decades been reluctant to impose it.

Activists are calling for the repeal of New Mexico's death penalty statute. They have been whipping up public sentiment in a law-and-order state that, organizers say, supports the death penalty but is growing ever more averse to carrying it out.

The grass-roots movement here is being watched closely by national anti-capital punishment groups, which historically have found little traction for their cause in the Rocky Mountain West.

"There is a huge amount of interest in what's happening in New Mexico," said David Elliot, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. "There is a growing momentum to repeal the death penalty in many states, but nowhere is that more true than in New Mexico, where support for the death penalty is a mile wide and an inch deep."

On a chilly autumn evening, Bill Stanton sits alone in a folding chair in front of the state Capitol, reading Thoreau. Surrounded by guttering candles and windblown pamphlets, Stanton is taking his turn at a sit-in organized by New Mexico's resurgent anti-death penalty movement.

The 41-day vigil has remained low-key. Volunteers sit under a tree at the Capitol for 12-hour shifts. A few curious tourists linger, reading from a bulletin board and asking questions, but lobbyists and legislators rush past.

The broad-based New Mexico Coalition to Repeal the Death Penalty is organizing the vigil and a letter-writing campaign, asking Gov. Gary Johnson to intervene to stop Clark's execution. The group includes clergy, officials from law enforcement and the corrections system, victims' families and a former governor whose last act in office was to commute the sentences of all five men on death row.

But the subject of the campaign is not likely to provoke public sympathy. Clark, a 45-year-old former ranch hand, ended his appeals and has told a judge he wants to die. He has expressed no interest or support for the campaign that has sprung up around his impending execution. He has for some time fought his own lawyers' efforts to avert execution.

"He's not a great poster boy for the cause, that's for sure," Stanton said. "But it's the issue we want discussed. His guilt is not in doubt, but innocent people have been put to death."

Even the mechanics of the execution have come under fire. New Mexico's correction officials--unschooled in carrying out lethal injections--have hired two moonlighting Texas state prison workers to perform the execution. A lawsuit filed last week unsuccessfully claimed that was illegal.

Clark is one of four men on New Mexico's death row, but it was not until Clark's execution was scheduled that the state's dormant anti-death penalty movement began to stir. The other inmates do not have execution dates set.

Until now, the various groups had little reason to protest--the state hadn't executed anyone in 41 years. Also, New Mexico juries have shown a marked reluctance to impose the death sentence.

Although polls have consistently shown support for the death penalty here, activists note the tide is turning. A poll taken in New Mexico last year found that support for the death penalty dropped 20%, to 47%, when the alternative of life in prison was offered. A Gallup poll last year showed 65% approval for the death penalty, down from 80% in 1994.

"The numbers seem high, but when it comes to actually killing someone, support really drops," said Cathy Ansheles, the coordinator of the coalition. "We haven't faced an execution in this state for a long time. This is a law and order state, but New Mexicans also have a great respect for life. The Catholic church and the Native American population here have that tradition. The state is unusual in that way."

Legislative efforts to repeal the death penalty have gained momentum in the last year. A bill repealing the death penalty statute was killed in the state Senate earlier this year, but proponents took heart in the narrowness of its 21-20 defeat.

"We were floored by that vote," Stanton said. "We saw that as a great victory. It's never been that close."

Since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976, no state has repealed the death penalty. It is unlikely that another repeal bill will be presented this session in the New Mexico Legislature. But the coalition and other groups believe that legislation repealing the death penalty will pass in 2002 and will land on the desk of a more receptive governor.

None of which will happen in time to alter Clark's fate.

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