As far as prisoner-rights advocate Mara Taub is concerned, New Mexico hasn’t really repealed the death penalty.
“Firing squad, electric chair, gas chamber, lethal injection and life without the possibility of parole are all different kinds of the death penalty,” Taub, head of the Santa Fe-based Coalition for Prisoners’ Rights, says.
Taub’s comments follow Gov. Bill Richardson’s March 18 signing of HB 285, “Abolish the Death Penalty,” into law.
Taub argues the legislation only outlawed execution. Death by lethal injection was replaced with life without possibility of parole, which Taub believes is the equivalent of “death by imprisonment.”
Her view reflects the schism HB 285 created early on among anti-death penalty activists. Both Taub’s coalition and the national Campaign to End the Death Penalty opposed any legislation that creates a sentence of life without possibility of parole—or LWOPP; prior to HB 285, New Mexico didn’t have such a sentence on its books.
Christy Armell, Campaign to End the Death Penalty’s Albuquerque coordinator, struggled with the legislation, but ultimately asked Richardson, in person, to sign the bill.
“I didn’t support replacing the death penalty with life without parole, but I also knew that without that part in it, the possibility of the bill passing would’ve been very slim,” Armell says.
HB 285’s sponsor, Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Bernalillo, and New Mexico Coalition to Repeal the Death Penalty Executive Director Viki Elkey both defend the sentence trade-off.
“I guess what I think about life without the possibility of parole is that if someone is sentenced to that and we have a mistake, we can correct it,” Chasey says. “I think that’s an important consideration. I also think that society has the right to expect to be protected from some of these dangerous criminals and, if life without the possibility of parole is the way to do that, then I support it.”
Elkey says if people believe LWOPP is inhumane, she expects prison reform advocates will “be working on it.” But, “we wanted to repeal the death penalty and give our legislators something to replace it with.”
Kenneth Hartman, an inmate who runs The Other Death Penalty Project out of a California state prison where he is serving a life sentence, issued a statement both praising and chastising Chasey and Elkey’s efforts.
“While we applaud the movement towards abolishing the death penalty in New Mexico, we believe it is disingenuous and wrong to call life without possibility of parole anything but the death penalty in another form,” Hartman writes to SFR.
Prison Legal News Editor Paul Wright, who himself served a 17-year conventional life sentence for first degree murder in Washington state, explains LWOPP is still death at the hands of the state.
“It’s part of the continual evolution of the search for the ‘humane death penalty,’” Wright says. “Hanging was seen as more humane than impaling people on a stake. Then there was the gas chamber, the electric chair and now they’re doing lethal injection. If you look at that trajectory, life without the possibility of parole is part of the same continuum.”
Wright adds that the US is one of the few Western industrial nations that does not impose sentencing limits. National movements have formed to oppose LWOPP sentences for juveniles and those charged with non-violent crimes under three-strikes laws, but advocates for individuals accused of capital offenses, such as Taub, are rare.
“Life without possibility of parole has fewer mandated appeals, much less visibility and many fewer people working on it,” Taub says. “Juries will give it more easily than they would give an execution sentence, so we are going to have more people in prison for the rest of their lives in terrible conditions.”
Taub says defendants had a better shot at freedom with the death penalty. Second Judicial District Attorney Kari Brandenburg told SFR the same thing: Only 4 percent of capital cases end in execution, which means many murderers are eligible for parole within a few decades.
The dream of freedom, Wright says, is what makes prison bearable.
“If you asked me to choose between the death penalty and life without parole, I would choose life because as long as there’s life, there’s hope,” Wright says. “Most of the guys I know doing life without parole don’t accept that they’re going to die in prison, even though that’s pretty much what’s going to happen to them.”