Friday, February 11, 2005


Rep. Gail C. Beam has introduced HB 576, which would abolish the death penalty in New Mexico, and would provide for a life sentence without possibility of release or parole. The death penalty system is flawed, and should be changed. But abolition is unwise. Consider this. Has there ever been in history a case which deserved the death penalty? If so, can we be assured that there will never again be such a case? If there has never been a case deserving the death penalty, can we be assured that in the future there will not be one? If you want to narrow the instances in which the death penalty can be imposed, fine. If you want to streamline the procedure so that convicts do not sit on death row for decades, that is good. If you want to require the Courts to give priority to death penalty cases, so we do not have years of appeals, that is good. It is scandalous that it takes years, even decades, for the appeals to be over.

A word about the deterrence argument. For many years, people have argued that the death penalty is no deterrent, by pointing to the variations in the "murder" rate among the States. The statistics relied upon are the FBI reports of non-negligent homicides. These include second degree murder and voluntary manslaughter. [I could be wrong; but I have never seen statistics of first degree murder, as I understand the term.] If the statistics were of murders in the first degree, that is, wilful and deliberate murder, committed intentionally after a thinking over the pros and cons, with a calm and reflective state of mind, then when one said State X has a low murder rate and no death penalty, it would mean something. It would not in itself prove that the death penalty has no deterrent effect, but it would be worthy of more consideration.

In countries South of us, prosecutors and judges are murdered, for the purpose of interfering with the criminal justice system. Here, children are murdered to prevent their testimony. Are these cases worthy of the death penalty? The death penalty cannot be justified except on the basis that it saves innocent lives. Presumably our Creator considers us all equally innocent, so we do not kill the murderer because he is evil, or we hate him, but because his death will result in the saving of innocent lives. What happens when evil people begin to use bombs on the judges and their families, or on the juries and their families, or the police and their families? What happens to the criminal justice system?

This proposed step of abolition is too drastic. Let those who object to the death penalty specify which of the cases covered by present New Mexico law that they would change, so that the penalty for such act would be so-called life without parole and not the possibility of death. The law requires an aggravating circumstance for the death penalty to be imposed. Which of the statutory aggravating circumstances should be repealed? This is a graver and more important affair of life, so let us pause and hesitate to act.

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