SUE MAJOR HOLMES
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico's new governor, a longtime prosecutor in Las Cruces, said some crimes deserve the ultimate punishment, and she wants the death penalty back on the state's books.
"When a monster rapes and murders a child or a criminal kills a police officer, the death penalty should be an option for the jury," Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, said in her State of the State address to open the 2011 Legislature earlier this month.
Some religious groups are opposing her effort, but organizations representing prosecutors and law enforcement officers say the death penalty is necessary.
Former Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, signed a measure two years ago abolishing New Mexico's death penalty, citing flaws in how it was applied and saying the criminal justice system must be perfect if it's going to put someone to death.
With the repeal, New Mexico replaced lethal injection with life in prison without the possibility of parole, becoming one of 15 states without a death penalty.
Republican Rep. Dennis Kintigh of Roswell, a former FBI agent, introduced the first attempt to reinstate the death penalty this year — a joint resolution that would put the question before voters as a state constitutional amendment.
Kintigh said he'd vote to reinstate the death penalty if it comes before lawmakers, but that he believes voters should decide such a serious issue. Since New Mexico has no provision for referendums, an amendment is the only way to do that.
New Mexico executed nine men from 1933 until it abolished the death penalty. The state's most recent execution in 2001 was its first since 1960.
Capital punishment is more expensive than life without the possibility of parole, given the longer trials, additional lawyers and expert witnesses, added proceedings, drawn-out jury selections and prolonged appeals, opponents say.
Life sentences without parole "can keep society safe, save money and focus on the victims instead of always focusing on the murderer," said Vicki Elkey, executive director of the New Mexico Murder Victim Family Advocacy Project, which succeeded the New Mexico Coalition to Repeal the Death Penalty. The coalition lobbied against the death penalty for 12 years.
It's also not easy to define who's for and against capital punishment, she said.
"It's not a Republican-Democrat, police-not police, victim-non-victim issue," Elkey said.
New Mexico's death penalty was limited to specific murder cases, including those involving kidnapping; rape; killing police officers, prison guards or inmates; murder for hire and murder of a witness. Martinez's office said she wants to reinstate that law.
The New Mexico Conference of Churches, which worked for nearly two decades to repeal capital punishment, will fight its reinstatement, said interim director Jim Baird.
The conference, which represents a broad section of Christian communities, issues statements only "when we can speak with one voice," Baird said. "In the act of killing in the name of the state, we can speak with one voice because we strongly oppose this."
Roman Catholic Archbishop of Santa Fe Michael Sheehan called the death penalty cruel and unnecessary and pointed out innocent people have been executed around the country. Reinstating the punishment, he said, would be a step backward.
But the New Mexico Sheriffs' and Police Association argues that capital punishment deters violence against police officers, jailers and prison guards.
"We have had many interviews with the assailant who said they would have killed a cop had it not been for the potential of the death penalty," said Jim Burleson, head of the association.
The association and district attorneys had opposed the penalty's repeal.
Attorney General Gary King also believes the death penalty is necessary in some cases. He said someone who is already serving a life sentence won't be deterred from killing a guard if the only penalty is another life sentence.
King, who also opposed repeal, said the death penalty should be imposed only in narrow circumstances, including killing a police officer or prison guard.
Bernalillo County District Attorney Kari Brandenburg, currently involved in a death penalty case that predates the repeal, worries whether New Mexico has the money to reinstate capital punishment.
"We don't have the money to hire attorneys to defend against the death penalty (for defendants)," she said.
New Mexico residents are struggling with the issue because it's not black and white, said Brandenburg, who acknowledged her own ambivalence.
"New Mexico has had a very conservative approach to the death penalty, which is good," she said. "It's not about revenge. It's about public safety and keeping people off the streets. . The practical issue is can we afford to have the death penalty?"Tags: