Wednesday, March 11, 2009

NM Senate committee OKs death penalty repeal

NM Senate committee OKs death penalty repeal

By DEBORAH BAKER Associated Press Writer © 2009 The Associated Press

March 9, 2009, 8:32PM

SANTA FE, N.M. — Legislation abolishing New Mexico's death penalty has cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee — its highest hurdle yet — and is headed to the full Senate for a vote.

It already has passed the House, so if it were approved by the Senate without change, it would go to the governor for his signature.

The bill replaces capital punishment with a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

There have been serious repeal efforts in New Mexico over the past decade, but no bill has gotten this far.

"It's been a long time coming," Michelle Giger, a founder of Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, said Monday after the judiciary panel's 6-5 vote.

"We don't want it. We don't need it. It doesn't work. So let's get rid of it," added Giger, whose father was fatally shot by a drifter in Santa Rosa in 1984.

New Mexico has executed one person since 1960. There are two men on death row whose sentences would be unaffected by the repeal.

An ex-prosecutor from Texas told the judiciary panel he no longer supports the death penalty because the judicial system is too imperfect to ensure that the innocent are always protected.

Former Bexar County District Attorney Sam Millsap cited the case of Ruben Cantu, whom he prosecuted — in a "perfect trial," he said — and who was executed in 1993. Doubts have been raised about Cantu's guilt, and Millsap said he may have been innocent.

A decade after Cantu's execution, the only witness to the murder Cantu was convicted of recanted his testimony, telling a newspaper Cantu didn't do it.

Millsap told the committee he made an error in judgment by prosecuting Cantu for capital murder based on the uncorroborated testimony of a single eyewitness.

If the jury had known at that time what is known today, Cantu wouldn't have been convicted, Millsap said later in an interview.

New Mexico courts, like those of Texas, "are not infallible," he told lawmakers.

District attorneys oppose the repeal, arguing that the death penalty is a deterrent to murder.

Senate Republican Whip William Payne of Albuquerque said life-without-parole sentences could endanger the correctional officers who must oversee convicted murderers.

"We may lock them up for life, but we don't lock them away from people for life," he said.

Another repeal opponent, Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Espanola, said there is no evidence any innocent person has been executed in New Mexico.

Under the repeal proposal, convicted murders may be imprisoned "but they're alive and they're doing as they please," Martinez said.

Joining Martinez and Payne in voting against the repeal bill were Republicans Clint Harden of Clovis and Sander Rue and John Ryan of Albuquerque.

Voting for the bill were Judiciary Chairman Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, and Democrats Peter Wirth of Santa Fe and Tim Eichenberg, Bernadette Sanchez and Linda Lopez of Albuquerque.

Gov. Bill Richardson has supported the death penalty in the past but has said he would consider signing a repeal bill if it reached his desk.

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