Capital Punishment — No to Barbarity

Is it a quixotic waste of time to oppose such a popular idea as the death penalty this legislative session when so many crucial human rights issues hang in the balance? No, I don't think it is at all.

No matter how politically marketable it might be right now for the state to kill people, and no matter how seemingly doomed opponents' efforts might be, opposition to capital punishment is the corner stone of all human rights activities in New Mexico.

Government's most intrusive, irrevocable, arbitrary, and bestial power is the performance of legal murder. Nothing is more hypocritical than a nation allegedly based on the Ten Commandments to not only sanction but welcome the death penalty. Nothing symbolizes the abuse of power like capital punishment, and no act of government has as much potential for the hideous distortions of injustice.

So even though human rights workers and Bill of Rights advocates anticipate calls this month for legislation on a same sex marriage ban, on forbidding late term abortions, on using chemical castration, and amending the Children's Code to permit curfews, the death penalty still leads the way and provides the moral energy to carry those other issues.

And there is a good chance that legislation will be proposed again this year to shorten the time for death penalty appeals following the Texas model.

Texas law drastically limits appeals by saying that any new evidence in capital cases must be presented within 30 days of conviction. Under those rules, Leonel Herrera was executed late last decade after his brother Raul had confessed to the murders of two police officers and Raul's son had given eye-witness testimony that his father was the killer.

This is the kind of loathsome rigidity and brutal, small minded thirst for vengeance that could become law in our state, if we're not very careful.

In the last 25 years, 82 death row inmates were released when evidence was turned up that reversed their convictions. And all such evidence was gathered after years of work by attorneys to ferret out perjured testimony and withheld evidence.

As the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote, “No matter how careful courts are, the possibility of perjured testimony, mistaken honest testimony and human error remain too real. We have no way of judging how many innocent persons have been executed, but we can be certain that there were some.” And if laws that limit appeals are enacted in New Mexico, we can be assured that innocent people will be killed here too.

Treating capital punishment with the cause and effect logic of drunk driving laws, or other deterrent and preventive penalties, is completely bogus. It skewers the debate to make it seems like an issue of reason versus a matter of emotion.

Premeditated and heinous murders, or even murders in the act of other felonies, are not preventable, even by monstrous penalties, in a violence-worshiping, arms-infatuated, war inflamed world like ours. Canada, Mexico, France, Great Britain, and even Russia understand that capital punishment is, itself, another act of unconscionable violence.

No matter what arguments are marshaled, the fact is always the same. The death penalty is simply and strictly a premeditated murder by the state. Any government that puts itself above the laws it decrees for its citizens is perpetrating a horrible act of arrogance and abuse of power.

Killing killers causes the government and its employees to commit an act as vile as that of their victims. What is the difference between the carefully designed and appointed death chamber in a penitentiary, the torture and killing rooms of a mad man, and the lynching tree of the mob? In my mind nothing at all.

The question always comes down to this: Does anyone have the right to kill anyone else? When asked in the context of the moral teachings of most world religions, the answer is simply and absolutely No. To have any credibility, a government must abide by its own highest values. And in the West, refraining from violence is number one.

V.B. Price is an Albuquerque free-lance writer, author, editor and commentator.
January 4, 2000