This week, Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico signed legislation repealing the death penalty, replacing it with life in prison without the possibility of parole. Governor Richardson based his decision on a lack of "confidence in the criminal justice system as it currently operates" and the very real possibility of wrongfully convicting and executing an innocent person. By repealing the death penalty, Governor Richardson’s action this week eliminates the risk of New Mexico ever executing an innocent person. Governor Richardson should be commended for taking this action.

The question now is whether Governor Richardson will take the necessary steps to eliminate the causes that lead to wrongful convictions. While I agree that life without parole gives New Mexico the opportunity to correct mistakes when wrongful convictions occur, I am concerned about the very real risk that innocent people will be wrongfully convicted and now sentenced to life without parole in New Mexico.

I commend Governor Richardson for his recognition that New Mexico’s criminal justice system is "inherently defective." The Governor recognizes the systemic problems that have led to wrongful convictions in New Mexico stating, "[e]vidence, including DNA evidence, can be manipulated. Prosecutors can still abuse their powers. We cannot ensure competent defense counsel for all defendants." Repealing the death penalty can prevent these systemic problems from leading to the execution of an innocent person. The next step is to prevent these errors from happening and sending an innocent person to prison.

The challenge for Governor Richardson is to take steps to protect the liberty interests of the citizens of New Mexico, and address the problems that he recognizes still exist in his state. The Governor recognizes "competent defense attorneys are not assigned to all defendants," yet New Mexico has failed to adopt the ABA Guidelines for the Appointment and Performance of Defense Counsel–standards recognized by the Supreme Court. Governor Richardson recognizes that "evidence can be manipulated," yet New Mexico lacks any laws mandating critically needed oversight and accreditation requirements for public forensic laboratories. The leading cause of wrongful convictions is faulty eyewitness testimony. Procedures have been developed that are proven to enhance the accuracy of eyewitness identifications and improve the criminal justice system as a whole. As such, the Governor should follow through with his commitment to fairness in the criminal justice by supporting the Eyewitness Identification Reform Act, a bill currently pending in the New Mexico legislature. Governor Richardson recognizes that prosecutors have the ability to abuse their power, but no state, including New Mexico, has an effective system of prosecutorial accountability–as illustrated in The Justice Project’s forthcoming policy review on this issue.

Governor Richardson’s responsibility to reform the criminal justice system in his state does not end with repeal of the death penalty. As the Governor stated, we live "[i]n a society which values individual life and liberty above all else." The state of New Mexico has an obligation to protect the lives and liberty of its citizens through a criminal justice system that yields fair and accurate verdicts. I applaud the Governor for his commitment to the fair administration of justice and hope that he continues to ensure that life and liberty are both protected in New Mexico.

John F. Terzano is President of The Justice Project, a nonpartisan organization that works to increase fairness and accuracy in the criminal justice system.

John Terzano

John Terzano

John Terzano has been involved in social justice advocacy for more than twenty-five years. Terzano led a five-year campaign to pass the Innocence Protection Act (IPA), the first piece of federal death penalty reform legislation to pass Congress and be signed into law. The IPA allows for DNA testing of individuals who may have been wrongfully convicted and authorizes funding to states to clear their DNA backlogs and improve forensic laboratory capacity and standards across the nation as well as provide assistance to states to improve the quality of legal representation for indigent defendants in State capital cases among other reforms. As president of The Justice Project, John is instrumental in working to reform the criminal justice system through public education, litigation support and legislative reform efforts.

Terzano received his undergraduate degree in public affairs from the Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University; graduated magna cum laude from the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law (UDC-DCSL); and received a Master of Laws (LL.M.) degree in International Legal Studies from American University's Washington College of Law. Terzano is an Adjunct Professor of Law at UDC-DCSL, is a former Vice Chair of the American Bar Association's Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities Criminal Justice Committee and currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Southern Center for Human Rights and Friends of the Law Library of Congress.