Over the next few days, TV viewers in certain, perhaps more conservative parts of the state, will see an uptick in political ads from "Repeal the Repeal," a political action committee backed by Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White to undo the legislature's repeal of the death penalty. The immediate goal, White tells SFR, is to raise money for a signature drive for late summer and early fall. Once the law goes into effect (July 1), the PAC has four months to gather enough signatures to make the death penalty a ballot issue in 2010.
SFR: If I understand correctly, you're looking to get a ballot initiative?.
DW: California and Arizona are heavy initiative states. Every general election they usually have several initiatives that were driven by the public. We do not have that in our constitution. What we do have is reverse referendum.
There's a provision in the constitution that allows...actually it's kind of two-prong. If you want to stop something from becoming law, there's a period of 90 days after the bill is signed where you can gather what amount to probably a quarter of a million signatures because it's 25 percent of the registered voters in 3/4 of the counties. If you wait until after it becomes law, then you have to get 10 percent of the signatures of the registered voters in 3/4 of the counties.
That's the direction that we're headed. It would go on the 2010 ballot. The way the constitution has it, you can't start the drive until the law goes into effect, then it has to be completed within four months.
I imagine the first option isn't viable.
Yeah, that, man, that would be a huge undertaking. Even 10 percent is a tall order, but I think it's nearly impossible to get that many signatures in such a short time frame.
Based on what you know about the New Mexico voting population, do you think you have a pretty good chance with the second deadline?
I do. There's a poll that was done by Public Opinion Strategies in February of this year that showed 67 percent of the voters in New Mexico supported the death penalty. It was a straightforward question: Do you support capital punishment for the most heinous murders? Everybody I've talked to believes that's very consistent with how New Mexico has approached the death penalty over the years.
A referendum would also repeal the life without possibility of parole sentence. I've heard a few prosecutors say, regardless of the death penalty issue, they do like the LWOPP option. Is that something you agree with?
Well, they like it from the standpoint that they can plea bargain for life without parole, while the death penalty is still on the table. It was just used with Clifton Bloomfield only a few months ago when he approached law enforcement and said, 'Look I'll confess to these murders if you will take the death penalty off the table.' Had he not done that, Clifton Bloomfield probably would've been back out on the streets and now he's in prison for 190 years.
There would've been no motivation for him to come forward had there not been the possibility of the death penalty.
Would you like to see both penalties on the books?
The thing is, when we look at somebody who has been charged with murder, there's usually a variety of other charges that go along with it. So, with a lot of these defendants, there's enough charges where you can keep the person in prison for life. So, I'd argue we have that now. It was just the term that was used by the anti-death penalty groups as a compromise. I've said from the beginning my biggest concern is that there are a lot of bad guys out there. New Mexico, believe me, we're in the top 10 of the most violent states in the country and have been for decades. There are bad people out there and I think some of them think twice before they hurt a law enforcement officer or a corrections officer because of the death penalty.
New Mexico doesn't have a really strong record for actually assigning the death penalty in capital cases
Here's where I disagree. It's not a record. I'd say it's the way we use it. All these anti-death penalty groups come in here and throw all these facts around that have nothing to do with New Mexico. It's used, I would argue, very responsibly and not often. Two in 40 years? David Cooper Nelson was a clear cut case and Terry Clark volunteered for it. You have two people on death row and a couple more potential death penalty suspects.
Look, they came, they targeted New Mexico because they saw an opportunity with our legislature, which is, I'm sorry, very pro-criminal. It just is. And they were successful. I don't criticize them. I'm in politics, I play the game and I enjoy it and that's the way it works and I tip my hat to them. But guess what? this is a political process too. I would also argue that they would do everything they can to prevent us from getting those signatures because they know they don't want this to go to a vote. I'm sure they know that the voters would support the death penalty if they had an opportunity to vote for it.
You use the bodies being found on the west mesa in your ad, but as far as I understand, whoever committed the murders wouldn't have been eligible for the death penalty under the old statute.
The whole the point of that is that there are some crimes, the unthinkable, the unimaginable and that it should be used in those cases and quite frankly you're looking at somebody who may have potentially raped and murdered 13 people. That to me is exactly what we're talking about. That's the ultimate punishment for the most unthinkable crimes and that's what I believe the death penalty should be used for.
During the floor debate in the House, Rep. Kathy McCoy, R-Bernalillo, argued that she would like to see the death penalty expanded to include non-murdering child rapists and that's been discussed in a lot of other states. What's your opinion on that?
I don't support that. i support the death penalty for murder. There's nobody that's more of a lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key kind of guy than me.
How do you react to speculation this whole "Repeal the Repeal" thing is a way for you to keep your name out there, statewide, and position yourself well for whatever race you might run in 2010—
I'm not running office. I ran for office last year. I'm not running for office. I was asked this on the radio a week ago. I am not running for office. Anybody who knows me, knows I've been going to Santa Fe fighting the repeal of the death penalty since [Rep.] Gail Chasey's [D-Bernalillo] been up there. Sure, everybody can say what they please and that's fine. But they also obviously don't know that I've been doing this for a long time and I feel strongly about it.
You know, anytime that you do anything you're always going to get labeled that you're only doing this for your political career. That's fine. What would be the alternative? Do nothing because I wouldn't want people to have the perception that I'm doing this for political reasons? I'm doing this for political reasons.
This is a political issue. I'm not afraid to say that. That's what it is: a political issues. And it's something I feel very strongly about and I felt the legislature and the governor went against the grain of the people of New Mexico and I feel that's exactly why the framers of our Constitution put that in the reverse referendum in the Constitution—specifically for an issue where the legislature and the governor went way outside, way out of bounds, way out of step with the public.
We ran an interview with Michael Astorga a few weeks back—
I read it.
Did you read the entire—
Yeah! He's not a big fan, huh? Not a big fan of Darren—Dave, I can't comment on him. I will tell you honestly, the only comment I will make and it has nothing to do with this case is that I now know the difference between Michael Astorga and myself.
I will never watch The Bachelor.
You know as the Santa Fe alt.weekly, we do come down on the repeal side of things, but to me, personally, it's fascinating to have the debate publicly rather than just in the Roundhouse.
I have good friends who I am very close to that do not support the death penalty and I respect that. I do. For the record, yes, I talk about the layer of protection that I think that penalty provides for law enforcement and corrections officers, but you know what? Arguing this stuff in that sterile environment of the Roundhouse...Law enforcement officers are different, especially people who have worked homicides.
I have seen first hand the unthinkable, the barbaric things that people do to other people. Those crimes can harden a man. They harden you; they make you tougher. I've been doing this for over 20 years and I've seen so many things that no one could even imagine. You watch CSI? That's child play to stuff that we see. And it makes you tough, man. It does. It hardens you and that's why I said I feel very strongly about this because it's something I've dealt with most of my adult life and I think in New Mexico we use it responsibly and sparingly and yet there are still those cases...I still respect somebody who says, 'I don't support it.' I understand that. It's an emotional issue.
But I still think overwhelmingly the people of New Mexico support it.