March 18, 2009 505.476.2217
Governor Bill Richardson Signs Repeal of the Death Penalty
SANTA FE – Governor Bill Richardson today signed House Bill 285, Repeal of the Death
Penalty. The Governor’s remarks follow:
Today marks the end of a long, personal journey for me and the issue of the death penalty.
Throughout my adult life, I have been a firm believer in the death penalty as a just
punishment – in very rare instances, and only for the most heinous crimes. I still believe that.
But six years ago, when I took office as Governor of the State of New Mexico, I started to
challenge my own thinking on the death penalty.
The issue became more real to me because I knew the day would come when one of two
things might happen: I would either have to take action on legislation to repeal the death
penalty, or more daunting, I might have to sign someone’s death warrant.
I’ll be honest. The prospect of either decision was extremely troubling. But I was elected by
the people of New Mexico to make just this type of decision.
So, like many of the supporters who took the time to meet with me this week, I have believed
the death penalty can serve as a deterrent to some who might consider murdering a law
enforcement officer, a corrections officer, a witness to a crime or kidnapping and murdering
a child. However, people continue to commit terrible crimes even in the face of the death
penalty and responsible people on both sides of the debate disagree – strongly – on this issue.
But what we cannot disagree on is the finality of this ultimate punishment. Once a conclusive
decision has been made and executed, it cannot be reversed. And it is in consideration of this,
that I have made my decision.
I have decided to sign legislation that repeals the death penalty in the state of New Mexico.
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
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
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.
And it bothers me greatly that minorities are overrepresented in the prison population and on
I have to say that all of the law enforcement officers, and especially the parents and spouses
of murder victims, made compelling arguments to keep the death penalty. I respect their
opinions and have taken their experiences to heart -- which is why I struggled – even today –
before making my final decision.
Yes, the death penalty is a tool for law enforcement. But it’s not the only tool. For some
would-be criminals, the death penalty may be a deterrent. But it’s not, and never will be, for
many, many others.
While today’s focus will be on the repeal of the death penalty, I want to make clear that this
bill I’m signing actually makes New Mexico safer. With my signature, we now have the
option of sentencing the worst criminals to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
They will never get out of prison.
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
The bill I am signing today, which was courageously carried for so many years by
Representative Gail Chasey, replaces the death penalty with true life without the possibility
of parole – a sentence that ensures violent criminals are locked away from society forever,
yet can be undone if an innocent person is wrongfully convicted. More than 130 death row
inmates have been exonerated in the past 10 years in this country, including four New
Mexicans – a fact I cannot ignore.
From an international human rights perspective, there is no reason the United States should
be behind the rest of the world on this issue. Many of the countries that continue to support
and use the death penalty are also the most repressive nations in the world. That’s not
something to be proud of.
In a society which values individual life and liberty above all else, where justice and not
vengeance is the singular guiding principle of our system of criminal law, the potential for
wrongful conviction and, God forbid, execution of an innocent person stands as anathema to
our very sensibilities as human beings. That is why I’m signing this bill into law.