New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson on Wednesday signed legislation repealing New Mexico’s death penalty.
The move makes New Mexico the second state to ban executions since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, the Associated Press says.
Richardson, a former supporter of the death penalty, called signing the bill the “most difficult decision” of his political life. However, he said, “the potential for ... execution of an innocent person stands as anathema to our very sensibilities as human beings.”
The governor said he made the decision after visiting the state penitentiary, observing the death chamber and also the maximum security unit which could house those sentenced to life without parole.
"My conclusion was those cells are something that may be worse than death," he said, according to the Associated Press. "I believe this is a just punishment."
The repeal passed the state Senate by a vote of 24 to 18 and had been approved by the House a month earlier. The law takes effect July 1 and will apply to crimes committed after that date. After it takes effect, the most severe legal sentence will be life in prison without the possibility of parole.
“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 governor said, also saying he was disturbed that death rows contain so many minorities.
He also claimed the death penalty affects American moral leadership in foreign policy.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, former President Jimmy Carter and Lt. Gov. Diane Denish joined others who called on Richardson to sign the bill. According to the governor, he had received 12,000 responses from residents by phone, e-mail and visits, reporting more than three-fourths favored the repeal.
Bishop of Rockville Centre William F. Murphy, Chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), had advocated for the repeal in a March 16 letter to the governor. He said repeal would “help to begin building a culture of life in our country.”
Echoing another passage of Bishop Murphy’s letter, Bishop of Las Cruces Ricardo Ramirez said the repeal “has made New Mexico a leader in turning away from the death penalty with all its moral problems and issues of fairness and justice.”
The New Mexico Sheriffs' and Police Association had opposed repealing capital punishment, arguing it deters violence against police officers, jailers and prison guards. According to the Associated Press, district attorneys also opposed the legislation, saying the death penalty was a useful prosecutorial tool.
Law enforcement officers have "lost a layer of protection and it's a sad day in New Mexico," said Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White.
New Mexico joins 14 other states that do not impose the death penalty. The state has executed only one person since 1960, child killer Terry Clark, in 2001.