STUDIES: The Application of the Death Penalty in New Mexico

A study by attorney Marcia Wilson was recently published in the New Mexico Law Review: “The Application of the Death Penalty in New Mexico, July 1979 through December 2007: An Empirical Analysis.”  Wilson's research reveals new information on how the death penalty was applied in New Mexico after its reinstatement.  The article was published before New Mexico repealed the death penalty in March 2009, and served as valuable information during the legislative debate.  Wilson concluded, “The numbers and percentages here suggest that the imposition of the death penalty in New Mexico is still influenced by legally irrelevant issues such as where or when the crime was committed and the race or ethnicity of the victim and the defendant.” 

Between 1979 through 2007 in New Mexico:

  • 211 death penalty cases filed
  • 203 were resolved by the end of 2007
  • 9 cases were dismissed before trial
  • 47.8% of the resolved cases ended with a plea bargain and a sentence less than death
  • 46.9% of the resolved cases went to trial
  • 25% of the resolved cases had a penalty trial
  • 15 people were sentened to death
  • 2 defendants remained on death row still challenging their death sentence
  • 1 defendant was executed (after dropping his appeals).

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Maryland Legislature Passes Bill Restricting Use of Death Penalty

On March 26, the Maryland House of Delegates approved a bill requiring specific evidence of guilt if the death penalty is sought.  The same bill was passed earlier by the Senate, and the governor supports the legislation.  Calling it a "step forward," Gov. O’Malley indicated he will sign the bill, limiting capital cases to those with biological or DNA evidence of guilt, a videotaped confession, or a videotape linking the defendant to a homicide.  The restrictions derived from an amendment during the Senate’s consideration of a bill to abolish the death penalty.  The current bill is designed to lessen the possibility of executing an innocent person. Maryland has executed five prisoners since reinstating the death penalty in 1978 and has five other inmates on death row.

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New Mexico to Save Money After Abolition of Death Penalty

A cost assessment prepared for the New Mexico legislature prior to its vote on repealing the death penalty indicated some of the money that would be saved if the bill was passed.  The state will save several million dollars each year, according to the fiscal impact report by the Public Defender Department. For example, in the case of State v. Young, the public defender office expended $1.7 million.  They estimated that the total cost to the state would be three times that much when the costs to the prosecution and to the courts are factored in. In the end, the state Supreme Court barred the state from pursuing the death penalty further because insufficient resources were being provided for the defense.

Citing just one part of the death penalty process, jury selection, the report noted, "Jury selection is a long, arduous process that potentially touches on the constitutional and religious rights of New Mexicans, and costs at least four times as much as a non-death first-degree murder case." 

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Death Penalty Abolished in New Mexico--Governor Says Repeal Will Make the State Safer

Governor Bill Richardson signed the bill abolishing the death penalty in New Mexico on March 18.  New Mexico now becomes the 15th state to abandon capital punishment and the 3rd in the last 2 years, following recent actions in New Jersey and New York in 2007. The new law substitutes the punishment of life without parole for the death penalty in future cases.  In a statement, Gov. Richardson cited the 130 inmates freed from death row since 1973 and added, "The sad truth is the wrong person can still be convicted in this day and age, and in cases where that conviction carries with it the ultimate sanction, we must have ultimate confidence, I would say certitude, that the system is without flaw or prejudice. Unfortunately, this is demonstrably not the case.Many family members of murder victims applauded the repeal: “This is recognition of the false promise that the death penalty offered, and a realization of how murder victims’ family members’ needs can truly be served,” said Lorry Post, Executive Director of Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation (MVFR). Cathy Ansheles of Santa Fe and a member of MVFR, reacted to the bill’s passage, “It’s a great relief to know that families will no longer be put through the turmoil of the death penalty. Finally, resources can be directed to where they will really do the most good.”

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Recent Legislative Activity on the Death Penalty

Many states are considering bills to abolish, reform, or expand the death penalty during current legislative sessions.  Some recent developments include:  New Mexico’s bill to abolish the death penalty passed the House and Senate and is awaiting Gov. Richardson's decision and signature, likely to come on March 18.  In Colorado, a bill to abolish the death penalty and use the resources to pursue cold cases passed the House Judiciary Committee 7-4.  In Kansas, the bill to abolish the death penalty passed the Senate Judiciary Committee 6-5, but the Senate voted to return the bill for further study.  In Maryland, the bill to abolish the death penalty went to the full Senate where an amendment was passed to keep the death penalty but to require a higher standard of proof for guilt in capital cases.  That amended bill is being considered by the House on March 17.  Montana’s bill to abolish the death penalty passed the Senate Judiciary Committee, passed the Senate 27-23, and faces a House Judiciary Committee hearing March 25.  A bill in Utah to allow the legislature to restrict death penalty appeals failed in the House.  More details on these bills and other legislative activity regarding the death penalty may be found on DPIC's Recent Legislative Activity page.

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New Mexico Legislature Votes to Repeal the Death Penalty

The New Mexico Senate voted on March 13 to repeal the death penalty and replace it with a sentence of life without parole.  The vote was 24-18.  The House of Representatives had previously voted in favor of repeal.  The bill will now go to New Mexico's Governor Bill Richardson for his signature.  He has not announced whether he will sign the bill, but has indicated a new openness to the repeal effort.  Many victims' families members in New Mexico had supported the repeal.

If signed into law, New Mexico would become the 15th state to abandon capital punishment.  New York and New Jersey ended the death penalty in 2007.  The bill can be read in full here.

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NEW VOICES: Republican Senator Says Kansas Death Penalty "Too Costly"

Senator Carolyn McGinn of Kansas (pictured) recently published an op-ed calling for an end to the death penalty because it is too costly and does not benefit the people. Sen. McGinn, a Republican from Sedgwick, is the sponsor of a bill that would replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole.  She explained that in light of the state’s budget deficit, Kansas is looking at ways to reduce government spending.  “One policy change being considered is whether the death penalty is worth its higher cost to Kansas citizens, versus the alternative sentence of life in prison without parole we now have on the books,” she wrote.  She pointed to a Kansas legislative report that found "the estimated median cost of a case in which the death sentence was given was about 70% more than the median cost of a non-death penalty murder case.”   Senator McGinn’s full op-ed may be read below:

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MD Senate Reaches Compromise on Death Penalty

On March 4, the Maryland Senate reached a compromise on a death penalty repeal bill by amending the bill so as to restrict capital prosecutions.  The proposed revision to the state’s death penalty statute would preclude murder cases where the only evidence is eyewitness testimony and, in turn, require DNA evidence, videotaped evidence, or a voluntary videotaped confession.  Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat and proponent of death penalty repeal, said his support of the Senate compromise came with mixed emotions.  Raskin said senators did not pay enough attention to the work of a governor-appointed bipartisan commission that carefully studied the state's death penalty. That commission, headed by former U.S. Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti, recommended abolishing the death penalty because of its racial and geographical disparities, the risk of executing an innocent person, and its high costs.

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NEW VOICES: Jimmy Carter Urges New Mexico Governor to Support Death Penalty Repeal

Former President Jimmy Carter wrote New Mexico's Governor Bill Richardson to encourage him to support a bill repealing the death penalty and replacing it with life in prison without parole. "We encourage your support for this comprehensive and visionary approach," Carter wrote. In addition to pointing out how the extra money spent on capital punishment could be better used elsewhere, Carter wrote, "As you know, the United States is one of the few countries, along with nations such as Saudi Arabia, China, and Cuba, which still carry out the death penalty despite the ongoing tragedy of wrongful conviction and gross racial and class-based disparities that make impossible the fair implementation of this ultimate punishment.”  

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Death Penalty Reform Bills Introduced in Tennessee

A Tennessee legislative study committee has ended its 16-month analysis of the state’s capital punishment process and has made recommendations for achieving a more fair and accurate system:

. Require defense attorneys in capital cases to be highly qualified;
. Mandate that defense attorneys have uniform access to evidence against their clients;
. Require police officers to record all interrogations related to a homicide case;

The committee also recommended that the state set timetables for litigating capital cases to minimize the time that victims' families wait during the appeals process.

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