Friday, March 27, 2009

Out of Dialogue, Conversion

It went fairly low on the radar over recent days, but New Mexico has become the second American state to outlaw the death penalty after a bill banning capital punishment was signed into law last week by Gov. Bill Richardson.

A Catholic, pro-choice Democrat, the lame-duck chief -- who withdrew as President Obama's nominee to head the Commerce Department due to a Federal grand jury's investigation of his own administration at home -- wrestled with the decision and initially leaned toward a veto... yet at the end of what he called "a long personal journey" on the issue that included a visit to death row (and attending Mass just beforehand), it was the state's bishops who sold Richardson on approving the measure.

From St Louis, the intrepid Patricia Rice tells the story:

Over the years, the New Mexico House and Senate had passed a similar repeal, but they never both passed a bill the same year. And Gov. Bill Richardson was opposed.

"A repeal bill never had reached the governor's desk," said Allen Sanchez, executive director of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops and president of St. Joseph Community Health.

This winter, when Richardson was named to be secretary of Commerce, anti-death penalty advocates rejoiced. If he moved to a cabinet post, Lt. Gov. Denise Demish would become governor. She said she would sign the bill. That hope crumbled when Richardson withdrew because of an investigation of his administration.

In the midst of their disappointment, New Mexico repeal supporters pushed on, especially the Native Americans and Catholics.

"Bishop (Ricardo) Ramirez and I sat down first week of the legislative session and saw the possibility that we might get the repeal vote," Sanchez said. Ramirez is bishop of the Diocese of Las Cruces, N.M.

One of the more dramatic sessions came when relatives of murder victims testified for the repeal.

"Many victim families don't want further violence, don't want the death penalty," Ansheles said. Before she founded the coalition, her great-aunt had been murdered, and she didn't want the violence continued.

Other important testimony came from men who had languished for years on death row in several states before being exonerated.

"The exonerates who came from other states really helped," Viki Elkey, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition to Repeal the Death Penalty said. "They shared their stories of wrongful convictions showing that our criminal justice system is flawed."

When it appeared the bill might pass, the governor, who is a Catholic, asked for a dinner meeting with Santa Fe Archbishop Michael Sheehan, who invited Bishop Ramirez.

"After he met with the bishops, the governor said he would not try to influence the legislature, and if the bill got to his desk he would seriously discern the issue," Sanchez said.

The bill did pass. Under New Mexico law, a bill dies unless the governor signs it within 72 hours.

"He really wrestled with signing it," the Repeal Coalition's Elkey said. The governor was told, for instance, that in the past 20 years The Innocence Project has identified 234 imprisoned individuals exonerated nationally because of DNA testing.

"It weighed heavily on him that there is no going back, if the state executes an innocent man," Elkey said.

Two days before Richardson's deadline, Bishop William F. Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y., and chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Domestic Justice and Human Development Committee, wrote Richardson saying the legislation "would help begin building a culture of life in our country."

The next day, Richardson visited the death chamber and death row in Santa Fe. He also saw the small cells where convicts who get life in prison with no parole are held.

"He saw that life in prison in that small cell could be worse that the death chamber," Elkey said. "Of course, if evidence eventually shows that they are innocent, the life sentence is reversible."

When Richardson returned to his office, he invited Ramirez and Sanchez to discuss moral and safety issues. Richardson talked to them about various points including his concern that prison guards and police would be less safe if murderers couldn't be executed, Sanchez said. They told him that police and prison guards are killed with the death penalty sentence available so it does not seem to be a deterrent. They also told him that if New Mexico repealed the death penalty he no longer would have to worry that an innocent man's blood would be on his hands, Sanchez said.

"You can get an innocent person out of prison but not out of the grave," Sanchez said. When the bishop and the conference director left the governor's office, the governor sent his staff away to decide alone.

Richardson signed HB 285 into law at 6 p.m., six hours before it would have died.

With the capital on tenterhooks awaiting Richardson's decision, Santa Fe observers reportedly knew the bill would be signed as soon as the governor entered his outer office with Ramirez at his side.

The 72 year-old prelate -- a Basilian Father who's served in Las Cruces since 1982 -- sat alongside Richardson as he signed the measure.