And you thought capital punishment was dead.
Although the New Mexico Legislature voted to repeal the death penalty in March, the new law doesn’t impact the two men currently on death row or any others who could be sentenced to death for crimes committed before July 2009.
Gov. Bill Richardson told reporters at the bill signing that he wouldn’t use his pardon power to commute the remaining sentences, and so death-penalty opponents looked to the New Mexico Supreme Court for relief.
In May, the court’s justices entertained the idea of finishing what the Legislature started, during oral arguments in the case of accused deputy-killer Michael Astorga. They, too, left the issue hanging when they quashed Astorga’s appeal, without explanation, on Sept. 17.
This volleys the death penalty into the voters’ court: The next governor will have the power to commute the sentences of those left on death row.
Anti-death-penalty activists will have friends on the Democratic ticket. Sen. Michael Sanchez, D-Valencia, who has formed an exploratory committee for a possible gubernatorial bid, championed the repeal bill on the Senate floor. Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, the only fully announced Democratic candidate for governor, also backed the repeal—though she stops short of supporting blanket commutation.
“When I serve as New Mexico’s governor, I will carefully review any request for pardon or commutation of sentence on a case-by-case basis that is brought to my office,” Denish says via email through a spokeswoman.
But anti-death-penalty advocates may find an ally on the Republican primary ballot, as well.
Gubernatorial candidate Rep. Janice Arnold-Jones, R-Bernalillo, tells SFR she would consider commuting the sentences of the two men on death row and any others who may join them.
“If there is a case brought forward, I would make sure the evidence supports [the conviction],” Arnold-Jones says. “With many people who have been on death row, we get to digging into the evidence and, with the technology that we have today, we find out we were going to make a mistake.”
Arnold-Jones adds: “I think life is sacred, whether you’re a baby or an adult.”
Arnold-Jones voted to repeal the death penalty in 2007 and again in 2009, and says the decision was a moral, not a religious one. But moreover:
“The biggest reason that I couldn’t sustain the death penalty any longer is it’s not working,” she says. “It is fraught with so many issues, so much cost and it bogs down our system. It’s just not working.”
Arnold-Jones’ reasons for opposing capital punishment echo those of Gov. Toney Anaya—an anti-death-penalty Democrat who ordered commutations for all five men on death row before he left office in 1986.
“I made it very clear I would not allow the execution of anyone while I was governor,” Anaya tells SFR. “People either voted for me because of that or in spite of that. The polls in those days were very, very strongly in favor of the death penalty so, if anything, it was going to hurt me. Obviously it didn’t hurt me enough to keep from being elected.”
In polling these days, New Mexicans favor life without possibility of parole instead of the death penalty. However, that won’t make it easier for Arnold-Jones in the 2010 Republican primary, political analyst and President of Research & Polling Inc. Brian Sanderoff tells SFR.
“In a Republican primary, you have a low-turnout election of committed Republican voters who tend to be a little more ideological,” Sanderoff says. “Her political opponents, in my opinion, would in all likelihood use it against her in terms of a campaign message.”
One such political opponent isn’t even running for governor: Republican Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White.
“She’s going to have a difficult time in the primary,” White tells SFR. “Now that it’s been repealed, [the death penalty] has a lot of people upset.”
However, White’s effort to “Repeal the Repeal” with a 2010 ballot measure has its own problems. White says he has learned from the Secretary of State’s Office that the state constitution prohibits ballot measures relating to public safety or health, and that he needs the attorney general’s opinion as to whether the death penalty can be decided by voters.