Death penalty nears end

By Steve Terrell: The New Mexican

The bill that would abolish the death penalty moved closer to becoming law Monday when the Senate Judiciary voted 6-5 to pass the bill to the Senate floor.

Supporters of House Bill 285, sponsored by Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, considered the committee vote an important victory because in recent years, the Judiciary panel has killed it.

This will be the first time since 2001 that a death-penalty repeal has reached the Senate floor. That year the Senate voted 20-21 against a similar bill.

Allen Sanchez, executive director of New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops — which supports the bill — said he believes HB285 will pass the Senate.

If he’s right, the bill would go to Gov. Bill Richardson to sign. Although Richardson has said in the past he’s supported capital punishment, in recent weeks he has said he would seriously consider the bill. “Gov. Richardson continues to weigh all sides of this issue,” spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said in an e-mail Monday. “He will not take a position until a bill reaches his desk.”

Richardson isn’t the only New Mexico governor whose stance on the death penalty has softened.

Former Gov. Gary Johnson, who was governor during the last execution in New Mexico, said Monday he now opposes capital punishment, calling it “flawed public policy.”

Johnson said in a telephone interview that he arrived at his opposition after the Nov. 6, 2001 execution of child-killer Terry Clark.

Johnson said there was no doubt in his mind that Clark was guilty. Clark never claimed innocence. He voluntarily halted his appeals process and stated his desire to die.

“I didn’t do anything to stop that execution, because that’s the kind of case the death penalty is designed for,” he said.

But Johnson said, “I unequivocally believe that innocent people have been executed in this country and there will continue to be innocent people executed.”

Shortly after Clark was executed, Johnson told reporters his position in favor of capital punishment was no longer firm and said he’d seriously consider signing a death-penalty repeal. On Monday he said he definitely would have signed such a bill.

He noted that he’d once been a true believer in capital punishment and had backed a bill that would have limited death penalty appeals. “I now realize that could have led to innocent people being executed.”

The Judiciary Committee on Monday heard testimony from a former San Antonio, Texas, district attorney who said his decision to seek the death penalty against an accused murderer might have led to the man’s wrongful execution.

Sam Millsap, now a lawyer in private practice, said the decision haunts him, even though he said he thinks there’s a good chance that Ruben Cantu did commit the Nov. 1984 murder and robbery of Pedro Gomez. But he said, there are now reasonable doubts about the case.

Gomez got “a perfect trial,” Millsap told the committee. The chief prosecutor was a man of integrity. Cantu’s lawyer did a good job of defending him.

Gomez was executed by the state of Texas in 1993.

But in 2005, Millsap said, the lone witness against Cantu, recanted his story, saying he’d been pressured by police to identify Cantu.

Millsap told reporters he was 32 when he made the decision to seek the death penalty. “Had I been older and more familiar with eye-witness testimony, I probably wouldn’t have made that decision.”

Opponents of the bill argued that they believe capital punishment is a deterrent to murder.

Senate Republican Whip Bill Payne, R-Albuquerque, said police and correctional officers are better protected with the death penalty in place.

Lem Martinez, district attorney of Judicial District 13, said the death penalty is a deterrent and that arguments otherwise are not true.

Abolition advocates have frequently brought up the 1974 Vagos case, in which four bikers were convicted and put on death row for a gruesome murder, only to be exonerated after the real killer confessed. However, Martinez said the state’s death penalty law at that time — which automatically gave the death penalty to all those convicted of first-degree murder — was later ruled unconstitutional. Since the current law went on the books, Martinez said, no innocent person has received a death sentence.

Currently only two men are on death row in New Mexico.

Senators voting in favor of HB285 Monday were Sens. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, and Cisco McSorley, Linda Lopez, Bernadette Sanchez and Tim Eichenberg, all D-Albuquerque.

Voting against the bill were Sens. Richard Martinez, D-Espanola, Clint Harden, R-Clovis and Payne, John Ryan and Sander Rue, all D-Albquerque.

Contact Steve Terrell at 986-3037 or sterrell@sfnewmexican.com