Abolishing the Death Penalty in New Mexico: Lessons Learned in a Long Campaign
Viki Elkey is Executive Director of the New Mexico Coalition to Repeal the Death Penalty. NM Repeal was founded in 1997, and has now grown to 3800 individuals and 140 supporting organizations. The coalition is celebrating its historic victory: On March 18, 2009, the governor signed legislation to repeal the death penalty in New Mexico.
After twelve years of planning, progress, and legislative setbacks, anti-death-penalty organizers in New Mexico gathered in August of 2008 to plan for victory. We revised our strategic plan and prepared to make a concerted push to pass repeal in 2009.
That plan included targeting Senators, Representatives, the Lieutenant Governor (who we anticipated would become governor if Governor Richardson obtained a job in the Obama administration) and the Governor (who on the presidential campaign trail supported the death penalty).
There are three main categories we focused on in order to abolish the death penalty this year -- Grassroots Organization and Mobilization, Public Education and Media, and Legislative Advocacy. We identified districts throughout the state where we needed the legislator's vote, and worked to deliver our message to those citizens about the realities of the death penalty and the needs of victims of crime.
In this final push, we were able to draw on the connections we had built over several years, and on the education we had been doing with citizens and legislators through several sessions.
In 2005 we had focused our message on the needs of victims of violent crime, and how they are continually let down in a system that employs the death penalty. Linking the needs of victims faced with the crisis of losing a loved one to murder, to the failed public policy that the death penalty represents, was a natural step for NM Repeal. By broadening the debate to spotlight the practical implications and tradeoffs involved with maintaining the capital punishment system, NM Repeal members have put a human face on the families affected by murder and asked critical questions about state priorities.
Also, NM Repeal continually spoke in public and at the Legislature about the 130 people who have been exonerated from death row in this country since the early 1970s. A system that is wrong so much of the time -- 68% of death penalty convictions are overturned at the federal or state level because of serious errors in their trials -- must be questioned, and that is exactly what our legislators did.
Finally, the faith community in New Mexico has been an important part of NM Repeal since our inception. We had outreach events in different congregations around the state prior to and during the 2008 session, and many of our faith leaders and their congregations wrote letters and met with their Legislators and the Governor. We have steering committee members who represent many faiths, and the message they carried, that by repealing the death penalty we as a state can protect society without becoming what we fear the most, was heard and used by Legislators as they debated the bill.
There are no guarantees with the death penalty and humans will always make mistakes. The exonerees truly changed the whole tone of the debate by telling their own personal stories about being wrongly convicted and sent to death row. Juan Melendez, who was freed in 2002 after spending almost 18 years on death row, spoke to numerous legislators and the Governor about the prosecutorial misconduct, lying witnesses, and the poor defense he received, all of which landed him on death row. I will never forget the look on Governor Richardson's face as he listened to Juan just two days before he signed the legislation -- he was disgusted by the way Juan was railroaded onto death row. Other members of Witness to Innocence also helped the campaign by doing outreach, meeting with legislators and the Governor, doing numerous media interviews, speaking at our NM Repeal Day at the Capitol, and doing outreach to schools and organizations.
We organized a rally and advocacy day at the New Mexico State Capitol on February 9, 2009. Over 225 people came to NM Repeal Day at the Capitol for a press conference and rally featuring exonerees, murder victims' family members, faith leaders, and legislators. After hearing the moving testimony from all the speakers, our members met with their legislators. We heard from many that this was the biggest advocacy day ever in Santa Fe. Our members made quite an impression on their legislators.
Another important aspect of the campaign this year was the cost of the death penalty. As Diann Rust-Tierney of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty says, the costs associated with the death penalty are a "dirty little secret" supporters of capital punishment want to keep quiet. The New Mexico Public Defender's office estimates that it will save at least two million dollars per year by abolishing the death penalty, and this does not include costs to the Attorney General's office, costs to the local county courts, costs for public-funded attorneys or the myriad of other costs associated with keeping the death penalty system in place. While our supporters did not speak about the cost argument when they stood in support of repeal, legislators often asked us for this information. By educating them about the costs, we were able to combat any opposition on this issue with the legislators.
While NM Repeal is not involved in elections, our members are very active in working on campaigns around the state for candidates who support repeal. They have volunteered for them, gotten to know them, and worked to secure their votes for repeal. In the November election five new state Senators who supported abolition of the death penalty were elected.
One lesson we learned is that all votes must be confirmed over and over again. There was one first-year Representative who told NM Repeal staff and members for months that he fully supported repeal. We left him the additional information he asked for, but when the bill reached the House floor he voted against repeal. He later said that he had always supported the death penalty, and denied telling us he supported repeal. This lesson led us to daily confirming our votes in the Senate by meeting with Senators, thanking them for their support, and reminding them to let us know if they needed anything.
The Debate Moves Forward
As we listened to the debate in committee and on the floor, we were truly moved by the support the legislators gave to repeal, and how they all fought passionately to see the bill pass in 2009. We heard numerous times that the legislature needed something to be proud of in this tight fiscal year, and that repealing the death penalty was something that could and should be done. Even after our victories in the state legislature, we didn't know if the Governor would sign the bill or not.
On the Presidential campaign trail, Richardson had informed Project Vote Smart, he wanted to "broaden use of the death penalty for federal crimes," and "limit the number of appeals allowed to inmates on death row." We focused a lot of energy on providing him the latest information on the failure of the death penalty in this country and by approaching those whom Richardson respected who opposed the death penalty. We encouraged these people to contact him and talk to him about repeal.
After the bill passed the House, Governor Richardson issued a statement to the Senate, urging them to let the bill be heard in committee and the floor, and to not use his former support of the death penalty as an excuse to not fully debate the bill. This statement helped propel us through the Senate Judiciary committee where we had been stalled the previous two sessions.
After all our organizing and lobbying, Governor Richardson issued the following statement:
Regardless of my personal opinion about the death penalty, I do not have confidence in the criminal justice 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 reality is the system is not perfect -- far from it. The system is inherently defective. 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 demonstrably not the case."
On March 18, 2009 Governor Richardson signed the bill to abolish the death penalty in New Mexico.
Still To Do
After 12 years, we are thrilled that we have abolished the death penalty in New Mexico, and want to honor our promise to the murder victims' family members by getting the victims' bills in this package passed.
In 2010, legislation will once again be advanced to serve the needs of victims, including bills that would protect employees when they must take time from work to attend court hearings or trials, support the education of children who have had a parent murdered, and increase funding to New Mexico's Crime Victims Reparation Commission for services to families of murder victims.
We hope that other states working to abolish
the death penalty will be able to use our victory in New Mexico
to further their campaigns. We have put together a packet that
includes all the information we used to secure repeal this year,
and will be distributing it to other states. This movement is
a close-knit community, working together each step of the way
-- so many other states were incredibly helpful to us in
NM, and we want to return the favor.
TO GET INVOLVED
NM Coalition to Repeal the Death Penalty,
PO Box 8552, Santa Fe, NM 87504, http://nmrepeal.org/
* Additional caption information
A vigil to urge that the execution of Troy Davis be stopped or at least delayed, outside the prison where the execution had been scheduled for that night. Because eyewitnesses have recanted, there is considerable doubt about Davis' guilt. With only two hours left, the US Supreme Court issued a stay. His appeal to the Supreme Court is pending. See www.gfadp.org for more information.
PHOTO: JACKSON, GA, SEPTEMBER 23, 2008. FROM "IMAGES OF THE DEATH PENALTY" BY SCOTT LANGLEY, www.langleycreations.com