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Gov. Richardson, Activists Honored in Rome After New Mexico Repeals Death Penalty

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New Mexico became the second state in the country to repeal the death penalty last month. After years of struggle by campaigners, the repeal was approved by the New Mexico Senate in February and the House in March. Governor Richardson and the state’s leading campaigners were honored at a ceremony at the Colosseum in Rome last week and met with the Pope. We speak with two anti-death penalty campaigners just back from Italy. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to a major victory in New Mexico, which last month became the second state in the country to repeal the death penalty. After years of struggle by campaigners, the repeal was approved by the New Mexico Senate in February and the House in March. Governor Bill Richardson, who had previously supported capital punishment, signed the bill into law on March 18th, calling it the “most difficult decision” in his political life.

New Jersey was the first state to repeal the death penalty in 2007 after the Supreme Court reinstated it in 1976.

Governor Richardson and the state’s leading campaigners were honored at a ceremony at the Colosseum in Rome, and they met with the Pope. The Colosseum is lit up every time a death sentence is commuted or a government bans capital punishment.

I’m joined right now here from Albuquerque, New Mexico, by two women who have just returned from Italy, who have been at the forefront of the fight to end the death penalty in New Mexico. We’re joined by Representative Gail Chasey. She’s a New Mexico Democratic state representative from Albuquerque. She has been the leading sponsor of the legislation to abolish the death penalty for, well, I guess the twelve years that she’s been in office. And Viki Elkey is with us also, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition to Repeal the Death Penalty.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Well, why don’t we begin with you, State Representative Chasey? You staked your career on this, twelve years to get rid of the death penalty in New Mexico.

REP. GAIL CHASEY: I first met the advocates for the repeal of the death penalty in my — right after my very first legislative session in 1997 at an interim committee, and they were comprised of the faith community, Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, criminal defense attorneys, people concerned with the justice system. It’s even — this coalition is so broad that it has even included the League of Women Voters.

We first introduced a bill in 1999, and every two years since then I’ve carried the bill. So this is the sixth time that I carried it, and we finally had a victory.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, this is quite amazing, Viki Elkey. You both came back last night from the Vatican, from Rome. Describe what happened there. You were there when Governor Richardson.

VIKI ELKEY: Absolutely. It was amazing. Last Wednesday night, the Colosseum in Rome, like you said, lit up for New Mexico abolishing the death penalty. And it was quite an amazing event. We had the mayor of Rome and the deputy mayor join us, and we had over 500 people from around Rome that showed up to watch the lighting ceremony, including several New Mexicans who happened to be in Rome vacationing and heard about it on the early evening news and made it down by 8:00 to watch it.

AMY GOODMAN: How did this happen? I mean, you have — you’re standing right behind Governor Richardson. He is shaking the Pope’s hand. But Governor Richardson for years did not support capital — did not support a repeal of the death penalty. He was for it for many years.

VIKI ELKEY: That’s true. And what we did this year was we realized that there’s a lot of new information out since the last time the legislature in New Mexico saw this bill in 2007. We’ve had ten countries who have abolished the death penalty. As you mentioned, New Jersey abolished it later that year in ’07. We’ve had a number of exonerations from death row, innocent men who have been sentenced to death by juries who have been later found to be innocent, as well as —-

AMY GOODMAN: How many?

VIKI ELKEY: We’ve had 131 in this country since the ’70s now. Number 131 happened last Wednesday, when we were in Rome watching the Colosseum light up. We had yet another gentleman from Illinois who was exonerated. And also, we had a great election year here in New Mexico. We elected quite a few new state senators and made it pretty obvious that we had the votes to get the bill passed this time.

AMY GOODMAN: Describe how you have organized over time, for people all over the country who are looking right now at New Mexico, whether they’re for or against the death penalty. How did you build the momentum?

VIKI ELKEY: We built it -— the coalition has been around since 1997, and it’s been a broad group of organizations who have worked with us. And I think that that’s the biggest message, is there’s no one message, and there’s no one messenger. There are plenty. We have the issue of innocents; we have our exonerees that worked with us. We have the Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation. These are family members who have been touched by murder who do not want to see the violence perpetuated. We also have law enforcement who have worked with it and seen that it doesn’t work. So it took a variety of coalitions. We have over 140 organizations and 4,000 members. And so, it was a broad thing, from the faith-based communities — our fiscal agent is the New Mexico Conference of Churches, and the faith-based community has obviously been a big part of this, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: State Rep. Chasey, what was the role of the Archbishop of New Mexico in this?

REP. GAIL CHASEY: In the repeal of the death penalty itself? I would say that because we have such a large number of Catholic senators and representatives, the Church has a presence. This does not mean that there is always a party line vote, if you will, with the Catholic Conference. But actually the Archbishop was out of the country the last few weeks of the session. But it was very clear that the Church — the Archbishop’s — the Catholic Conference’s spokesperson, Alan Sanchez, was very, very present and is an excellent lobbyist and has a very good relationship with the legislators. So I do think that for many of those who supported it, their faith was important.

That was not the only reason. As Viki said, there wasn’t just one message and not just one messenger. We didn’t have all of the Catholics in the legislature vote for the bill, and many who voted for the bill were from other religions, including the Jewish faith. So we had — I don’t want to minimize it or over-accentuate it, but the Catholic Community of Sant’Egidio, which is based in Rome, works throughout the world on peace initiatives, and they’re behind the lighting of the Colosseum, and they did arrange for the meeting with the Pope, between the Pope and the governor. And that’s something that takes place at the end of the public audience, but it is in the public square.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you feel Governor Richardson ended up changing his mind? He said it was “the most difficult decision” of his political life. You all went together to Rome, so I assume you had many conversations together. He has resisted this for all of the time that he has been in office, for all the time that you have introduced this bill.

REP. GAIL CHASEY: I think the hardest thing for him was that when he was in Congress, he had supported the death penalty, and he felt that he needed to be consistent with that position. What I reminded him is that when he was in Congress, we didn’t have 130 exonerees, now 131. I think that was a very compelling reason for him.

Another thing that has emerged over the years — and frankly, we have been meeting with him ever since his first election here in New Mexico as governor. We hadn’t met with him — the movement was not underway when he was serving in Congress. But we had met with him, and we continued to supply him with information. We have had a number of really prominent people meet with him, including Sister Helen Prejean, including the exonerees. Every year he heard more and more and has become very conversant in the death penalty, about the abolition of the death penalty.

After it passed the House of Representatives this year, he made a statement saying, “If anyone thinks that I am going to try to keep it from coming to my desk, I won’t do that. That should not inform your decision as to how you’re going to vote for it in the Senate.” However, he didn’t promise to sign the bill if it came to him. In that process, he took so much public input. In fact, after the Senate passed the bill, he invited emails, calls, letters, visits from the public, and his office kept a tally of it. There were nearly 12,000 New Mexicans — maybe there were people from outside of the state, but from New Mexico — who either met with him, emailed him, called or wrote a letter. And 74 percent of them supported his signing the bill, which is even higher than our polling data shows.

AMY GOODMAN: Viki Elkey, was there anyone on New Mexico’s death row?

VIKI ELKEY: Currently we have two people on New Mexico’s death row.

AMY GOODMAN: What happens to them?

VIKI ELKEY: In New Mexico, our legislation cannot be retroactive. We cannot get them off death row. This bill goes into effect in July. And so, currently, this bill does not affect them or anyone who is facing the death penalty in New Mexico.

AMY GOODMAN: So, they will be executed, unless they are exonerated or unless the governor commutes their sentence.

VIKI ELKEY: Right, absolutely. And I think that that’s something that’s very interesting to see, if people will be interested in executing people, now that we have abolished the death penalty in New Mexico. I find it hard to believe that there’s going to be the support for that. Our polling data from the best pollsters in New Mexico, Research & Polling Inc., show that 64 percent of New Mexicans supported repealing the death penalty, replacing it with life without parole, and providing that restitution to victims’ families. So I just don’t think that there’s the support there. The two gentlemen on New Mexico’s death row right now have got quite a few more years of appeals to go through. So that is something that we will be watching and waiting.

AMY GOODMAN: And has the governor said anything to you about commuting their sentences?

VIKI ELKEY: Currently, he has said that he will not commute those sentences.

AMY GOODMAN: Even though he’s opposed to the death penalty.

VIKI ELKEY: Even though he’s opposed to the death penalty. He said last week that he felt that the justice process had gone through with those particular cases and that they had been through the courts, and he wanted to leave it up to the courts to make the decision on that.

AMY GOODMAN: Last question, Viki Elkey, why you, yourself, got involved with this issue. And then, what are your plans now, now that you have won this victory of getting the death penalty abolished in New Mexico?

VIKI ELKEY: For me, abolishing the death penalty was a personal moral issue. I just felt that we just don’t teach people that killing people is wrong by killing other people. And for me now, we’ve still got some victims bills to get passed. We have plenty of support in the legislature for those bills. We just ran out of time. We don’t have very long sessions in New Mexico. So we’ll work to get those victims bills passed in the next session.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank both of you for being with us here at KNME PBS in Albuquerque. Gail Chasey, state rep., who has championed this bill for a decade, New Mexico Democratic state representative from here in Albuquerque. And Viki Elkey, the executive director of the New Mexico Coalition to Repeal the Death Penalty. They just came back from Rome, where the Colosseum was lit in honor of New Mexico repealing the death penalty.

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