Saturday, March 14, 2009

Death Penalty About to End in New Mexico

In a historic move on Friday the Senate voted to repeal the death penalty in New Mexico. The House has already passed the bill, which now becomes law on Wednesday March 18 unless the governor vetoes it. A veto seems highly unlikely, given the constellation of political forces in the legislature at this time--liberal legislators gained seats in the legislature after the 2008 elections. Perhaps even more important, a poll taken in 2008 indicated that 64% of New Mexicans would support replacement of the death penalty with life without parole. Given the governor's current approval rating (41%), he would hardly be likely to risk alienating 2 out of 3 voters on that score, even though he appeared to be against abolishing the death penalty last year. If it becomes law New Mexico will become the 15th state to repeal the death penalty

The death penalty has a long and undistinguished career in American politics, with highly uneven, which is to say, unfair, application in different states, in its timing, and with prejudice to blacks, Hispanics, and the poor. It was suspended in 1972 by the Supreme Court due to the capricious way the Court said it was being applied. The ban was lifted in 1976 and since that time 1136 executions have taken place, 95% of them in the South, and well over half of those executed were people of color. Even the current U.S. Supreme Court, which is hardly a bastion of liberal thought, has had second thoughts about the constitutionality of the death penalty as it is currently practiced (or malpracticed?) in real life.

In New Mexico Toney Anaya showed a good deal of moral courage when he ran for governor in 1982 and publicly declared there would be no executions should he be elected. In spite of public opinion running strongly in favor the death penalty at that time, Anaya won the election and kept his word.

Globally, there has been a strong tendency in the past few decades to abolish the death penalty. Thirty years ago only 16 countries had abolished the death penalty. Today all but 59 countries (out of about 200) have abolished it or severely restricted it. In 2007 the United States was fifth in the world in the number of executions carried out, behind China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, and was followed by Iraq. Other countries that carried out executions that year include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Belarus, Botswana, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Iran, Japan, Kuwait, Libya, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Viet Nam, and Yemen. If you remove the United States and Japan from the list, the average score on the Economist Intelligence Unit's Index of Democracy for these countries is 3.61, which would rank 121st out of 167 countries covered, slightly ahead of Cuba but behind Pakistan and Rwanda. That is to say, with the exception of the United States and Japan those countries that carry out executions are exceptionally undemocratic.

New Mexicans can be proud we are about to leave the ranks of those societies--overwhelmingly undemocratic--that still maintain the death penalty.

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