Happy Anniversary New Mexico! Today is the first anniversary of the day when Governor Bill Richardson's signature made New Mexico the third state in three years to repeal the death penalty. With the stroke of a pen (and much hard work before that) New Mexico abandoned a legal institution crumbling under its own weight.
Formerly a death penalty supporter, Governor Richardson changed his views because he came to know so much more than he did when he first encountered the practice.
When the so-called "modern death penalty statutes" were enacted over 30 years ago -- many believed sincerely that it might deter crime. We thought that most family members of victims would want to have the death penalty exacted and we thought the practice would not cause further harm and trauma. Perhaps most importantly -- we thought that the criminal justice system could get it right.
But thirty year's experience in each state that has the death penalty tells us that the good that we were expecting never came to fruition. And unanticipated harms and costs are actually undermining our efforts to respond effectively to crime and violence.
There is still no hard empirical evidence that proves the death penalty deters murder. To the contrary, there is evidence that states that have the death penalty and use it most frequently continue to suffer higher rates of homicide. On the other hand states like New Jersey that ended the practice in 2007, are beginning to enjoy declines in their overall crime and homicide rates.
The relationship between survivors of homicide victims and the death penalty is more complicated than we once thought. First and most importantly, there is no monolithic view on the death penalty among victims' families. Some families support it while others just as vigorously oppose the practice--more than a quarter of the Board of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty are family members of homicide victims. For those victims who support the death penalty, we have a better understanding of the pain that the death penalty process causes them. The uncertainty of a legal process, that seems to operate in fits and starts takes its toll.
The reason for their continued trauma is: that we are a nation of laws and this is the level of deliberation necessary when the stakes are as high as life and death. But this is of little comfort. We thought it would be easier but it's not -- because of the other lesson we've learned -- We are not getting it right. Nine men were exonerated and released from death row in 2009 when New Mexico repealed the death penalty. Thus far, 139 people in 26 states have been released nationally from death row with evidence of innocence.
Small wonder that since New Mexico repealed capital punishment, at least eleven states have engaged in similar debates, with many coming within one or two votes of joining the company of their sister states without the practice. Small wonder too, that the American Law Institute which 30 years ago gave the legal equivalent of its "Good House Keeping Seal of Approval" to the model for these now failing death penalty statutes, recently withdrew the model and its endorsement, concluding that the problems inherent in capital sentencing and the risk of error could not be solved.
And one thing that we hoped to be true, we now know can happen -- with the death penalty gone--taking its high drama, high costs and tensions with it -- there is space for a calmer and more rationale conversation first about how we can do more for victims and second how we can do more to prevent others from becoming victims.
And so it's no accident that in New York, New Jersey and now New Mexico, states which recently abandoned capital punishment, discussions are focusing on building stronger support systems for victims and to fight crime. The New Mexico Coalition to Repeal the Death Penalty having achieved its original goal, has a new project: The New Mexico Murder Victim Family Advocacy Project.
Happy Anniversary. We're looking forward to celebrating more states.
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