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.