While California has been in the news for competing death penalty measures, New Mexico quietly brought a bitter House debate to an end, passing HB7, a measure to restore the death penalty in certain circumstances.
New Mexico’s governor, Susana Martinez, must be pleased. She’s been pushing for the state to resume prisoner executions.
Now it’s up to the Senate to decide whether the legislation will more forward. Even so, it’s a bad sign for death penalty opponents who are fighting to ban this archaic form of punishment across the country.
In 2009, New Mexico banned the death penalty on the grounds that it was highly costly and used so infrequently that it didn’t make sense to leave it on the books as a punishment.
But the state’s Republicans claim that the death penalty should be part of the judicial toolbox. They argue that the cost projections related to administration of capital punishment are inflated.
The number of people eligible for the death penalty might be so small as to make it virtually unused, but evidently Republicans want the option just in case — especially in rare cases when people kill law enforcement officers on the job.
The bill makes an appeal to emotion by suggesting the death penalty should be available in the case of child murders and killings of police and correctional officers.
For lawmakers, it’s a wise move to target members of the public who might be on the fence about the death penalty except in extreme cases. But it also creates a slippery slope, opening up the possibility of legalizing it in a growing number of circumstances.
Regardless as to one’s personal stance on the death penalty, the bill has a glaring legal problem, according to Nicole Knight: It imposes an IQ cutoff for executions, which the Supreme Court has deemed unconstitutional.
The cutoff is set at 70, a largely arbitrary number. Some people with lower IQs could potentially be found competent to stand trial, while those with higher IQs might not be legally competent. These assessments are based on evaluations of individuals, not sweeping judgments on the basis of a single number.
The phrasing around methods of execution is also vague, indicating only that prisoners should be executed by being given enough of a “substance” to cause death. One reason for that wording is the repeated legal challenges to specific drugs used in executions. The shrinking availability of approved compounds is also a factor, as pharmaceutical companies refuse to supply drugs for executions.
New Mexico Republicans are clearly hoping to build in a bit of a buffer for themselves, but that may not be great news for justice.
Democrats argue that the bill was snuck through the House in the middle of the night — which it was — with a lack of transparency for members of the public who might have an interest.
Legislative transparency and hastily-passed bills have been a bit of a theme in 2016, as opponents of North Carolina’s HB2 have noted.
Democrats may get the last laugh in the Senate, though. The bill is unlikely to pass, ensuring that it stalls out in the lower house and never actually makes it to the books — at least, until the makeup of the House and Senate changes and death penalty supporters make up the necessary majority.