Introduction to Hands Off Cain 2009 Report by Bill Richardson
Governor of New Mexico
On March 18, 2009, Governor Bill Richardson ratified the law abolishing the death penalty in New Mexico. The following is his “ratification speech” with which Governor Richardson explains his decision to ratify the law that replaces the death penalty with life imprisonment and why, as opposed to his past opinions, he is no longer in favor of the death penalty. Governor Richardson agreed that the speech be used as the Introduction to this Report.
Today marks the end of a long personal journey for me on the issue of the death penalty.
Throughout my adult life I have been a firm believer in the death penalty as a just punishment – in very rare instances, and only for the most heinous crimes. I still believe that. But six years ago, when I took office as Governor of the State of New Mexico, I started to challenge my thinking on the death penalty.
The issue became more real to me because I knew the day might come when one of two things would happen: Either I would have to take action on legislation to repeal the death penalty or, more daunting, I might have to sign someone’s death warrant.
I’ll be honest -- the prospect of either decision was extremely troubling. But I was elected by the people of New Mexico to make this type of decision.
Like many of the supporters who took the time to meet with me this week, I believe the death penalty can serve as a deterrent to some who might consider murdering a law enforcement officer, a corrections officer, a witness to a crime or kidnapping and murdering a child. However, people continue to commit terrible crimes even in the face of the death penalty, and responsible people on both sides of the debate disagree strongly on this issue.
But what we cannot disagree on is the finality of this ultimate punishment. Once a conclusive decision has been made and the death sentence meted out, it cannot be reversed. And it is in consideration of this, that I have made my decision.
I have decided to sign legislation that repeals the death penalty in the state of New Mexico.
Regardless of my personal opinion about the death penalty, and while I have utmost respect for the men and women who work in all aspects of our criminal justice system, I do not have ultimate confidence in that system as it currently operates to be the final arbiter when it comes to who lives and who dies for their crime. If the State is going to undertake this awesome responsibility, the system to impose this ultimate penalty must be perfect and can never be wrong.
But the system is not perfect. DNA testing has proven that. Innocent people have been put on death row all across the country.
Even with advances in DNA and other forensic evidence technologies, we can’t be 100-percent sure that only the truly guilty are convicted of capital crimes. Evidence, including DNA evidence, can be manipulated. Prosecutors can still abuse their powers. We cannot ensure competent defense counsel for all defendants. 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 not the case: More than 130 death row inmates have been exonerated in the past 10 years in this country, including four New Mexicans – a fact I cannot ignore.
It also bothers me greatly that minorities are overrepresented in the prison population and on death row.
And from an international human rights perspective, there is no reason the United States should fall behind the rest of the world on this issue. Many of the countries that continue to use the death penalty are also the most repressive nations in the world. That’s not something to be proud of.
I have to say that all of the law enforcement officers, and especially the parents and spouses of murder victims, made compelling arguments in favor of retaining the death penalty. I respect their opinions and have taken their experiences to heart, which is why I struggled – even today – before making my final decision.
Yes, the death penalty is a tool for law enforcement. But it’s not the only tool. For some would-be criminals, the death penalty may be a deterrent. But it’s not, and never will be, for many, many others.
Faced with the reality that our system for imposing the death penalty can never be perfect, my conscience compels me to replace the death penalty with a solution that keeps society safe. The bill I am signing today, which was courageously carried for so many years by Representative Gail Chasey, replaces the death penalty with true life without the possibility of parole – a sentence that ensures the most violent criminals are locked away from society forever, yet one which can be rectified if an innocent person is wrongfully convicted.
In a society which values individual life and liberty above all else, where justice and not vengeance is the singular guiding principle of our system of criminal law, the potential for wrongful conviction and, God forbid, execution of an innocent person stands as anathema to our very sensibilities as human beings. That is why I’m signing this bill into law.