Tonight, a little after 6 PM mountain time, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson signed into law a bill abolishing the death penalty in his state. After weeks of publicly wrestling with the issue (he had in previous years been a supporter of capital punishment), and after several days of widely soliciting public comment – a hotline the Governor’s office set up resulted in calls coming in 3-1 in favor of abolition – the Governor agreed to strike capital punishment from the books (though the law is not retroactive, and the fate of the two men who currently occupy New Mexico’s death row is unclear).
New Mexico becomes the 15th state in the U.S. to outlaw capital punishment. Curiously, it is also the third “New” state in a row to be moved into the abolitionist column. New York’s death penalty was declared unconstitutional and its death row closed in 2007, and New Jersey abolished its death penalty legislatively, also in 2007. The only remaining “New” state – New Hampshire – will be having a House floor debate on death penalty abolition on Tuesday, March 24, though in that state, the Governor is not wrestling with the issue at all (at least not publicly), and is unlikely to support any repeal bill.
New Mexico becomes the first Southwestern state to end its experiment with the death penalty. Until now, abolition has been confined to the Northeast and Upper Midwest (plus Alaska and Hawaii). Like its fellow “New” states, New Mexico rarely used its death penalty (only 1 execution since 1960 – the other “New” states never did carry out an execution after reinstating their death penalties after 1976). Other states that fit into this pattern include New Hampshire (no executions since 1939), and Kansas (no executions since reinstatement). In both these states, vital abolition efforts are ongoing. Other states where abolition debates are heating up (Colorado, Montana, Nebraska )have carried out 1, 3 and 3 executions respectively, and Maryland has only carried out 5.
In fact, more than half the states in the country have either abolished the death penalty, or have carried out fewer than 10 executions in the last 30 years. Only 9 states carried out executions last year.
And support for capital punishment continues to dwindle. This is reflected in the decreasing number of death sentences handed down by juries (111 last year, down from a high of 328 in 1994), and the reduced support for the death penalty in public opinion polls (a May 2006 Gallup poll revealed that Americans are evenly split between preferring the death penalty (47%) or life without parole (48%)).
Exonerations off of death row (there have been 130 since 1973), and other wrongful convictions revealed by DNA testing (there have been over 230 of those), have worn down enthusiasm for executions as the public has become increasingly aware of how mistake-prone our criminal justice and capital punishment systems can be.
Once a third-rail issue in most states, reforming or even repealing the death penalty is now mainstream politics. Skepticism about capital punishment is making inroads everywhere, even in the South, where the vast majority of executions take place. Texas juries are doing what juries are doing nationwide, handing down fewer and fewer death sentences (there were 11 in 2008, as compared to 48 back in 1999). And North Carolina, which has carried out 43 executions since reinstatement, had only one death sentence last year.
The U.S. death penalty will not be relegated to the history books any time soon, but as doubts about its usefulness — and doubts about its cost – persist and grow, more states may decide that it’s just not worth it to maintain capital punishment.