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Pushing back the death penalty in New Mexico

In an act of courage, Gov. Bill Richardson repealed capital punishment in the state. Hopefully his decision will make it easier for other officials to follow their conscience.

March 20, 2009

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has had his share of setbacks recently. He ran for president and never came close. Then he was considered for a spot in the Obama administration but was forced to withdraw. Those detours sent him home to New Mexico to resume his governorship, and for that we are grateful. Richardson's inability to move up meant that on Wednesday, he was in his office and in position to perform the most important act of his political life: He signed a bill abolishing the death penalty in New Mexico.

As long-standing opponents of capital punishment, we welcome any move to roll it back, whether judicially or legislatively. We have cheered as state and federal courts properly have raised objections on various grounds -- from the cruelty of certain forms of execution to the disparities in the penalty's application to the occasional case of an innocent person on death row. But New Mexico's abolition is particularly satisfying for several reasons. It is the work of a legislature and a governor, and thus immune to the protests of those who complain about judicial activism. And it takes place in a state outside the liberal centers, and thus is a reminder of the widening revulsion at the punishment. It is hardly surprising that New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts refuse to engage in state murder; it is more notable to find opposition in Alaska, West Virginia and, now, New Mexico. Increasingly, the death penalty is becoming a regional phenomenon, with executions largely confined to Texas and the Deep South.

Today, about two-thirds of Americans support capital punishment, but that's down from above 70% a few years ago. Encouraging political trends are at work too. For decades, capital punishment enjoyed such strong public support that only reckless or short-lived politicians dared oppose it. Gov. George Ryan in Illinois imposed a moratorium on executions only in the waning days of his tenure. Gov. Tony Anaya commuted the sentences of all death row inmates in New Mexico just before leaving office in 1986, and Richardson waited until after the collapse of his national ambitions before announcing his position. But with each governor who acts, with each court that questions, with each conviction that is overturned, it becomes easier for the next official to follow his conscience. As each does, the penalty recedes from the American landscape.

In signing the bill, Richardson called his action the most difficult of his life, but said he was compelled to take it because "the potential for ... execution of an innocent person stands as anathema to our very sensibilities as human beings." Those are words of moral courage by a governor fortunately in place to deliver them.

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