SANTA FE, N.M. - Gov. Bill Richardson signed legislation Wednesday repealing New Mexico's death penalty, making it the second state to ban executions since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.
Richardson, a Democrat who formerly supported capital punishment, said signing the bill was the "most difficult decision" of his political life but that "the potential for ... execution of an innocent person stands as anathema to our very sensibilities as human beings."
Richardson said he made the decision after going to the state penitentiary, where he saw the death chamber and visited the maximum security unit where those sentenced to life without parole could be housed.
"My conclusion was those cells are something that may be worse than death," he said. "I believe this is a just punishment."
The repeal, which passed the state Senate by a 24-18 vote Friday and was approved by the House a month earlier, takes effect July 1 and will apply to crimes committed after that date. Once in effect, the most severe punishment will be a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
"Faced with the reality that our system for imposing the death penalty can never be perfect, my conscience compels me to replace the death penalty with a solution that keeps society safe," Richardson told a news conference in the state Capitol.
With Richardson signing the measure, New Mexico joins 14 other states that do not impose capital punishment. New Jersey, in 2007, was the first and only other state to outlaw capital punishment since its reinstatement by the Supreme Court.
Since 1960, New Mexico has executed only one person, child killer Terry Clark, in 2001. Under the outgoing law, the death sentence could be applied in cases where children, law enforcement and correctional officials, and witnesses were murdered.
The sentences of two men currently on death row will not be affected by the new law.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, former President Jimmy Carter and Lt. Gov. Diane Denish were among those who called on Richardson to sign the bill. The governor also said his solicitation for input from residents received 12,000 responses by phone, e-mail and visits and that more than three-fourths were in favor of repeal.
Roman Catholic Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of the Diocese of Las Cruces said that by repealing the punishment, Richardson "has made New Mexico a leader in turning away from the death penalty with all its moral problems and issues of fairness and justice."
The American Civil Liberties Union called it "a historic step and a clear sign that the United States continues to make significant progress toward eradicating capital punishment once and for all."
The New Mexico Sheriffs' and Police Association had opposed repealing the death penalty, saying capital punishment deters violence against police officers, jailers and prison guards. District attorneys also opposed the legislation, arguing that the death penalty was a useful prosecutorial tool.
Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White said law enforcement officers have "lost a layer of protection and it's a sad day in New Mexico."
New Mexico was one of several states considering repealing the death penalty this year.
In Kansas, a bill failed to clear the Senate this week.
A former congressman and member of President Bill Clinton's cabinet, Richardson said he was disturbed that death rows contain so many minorities. And, from a foreign policy perspective, the death penalty "did not seem to me to be good moral leadership and good foreign policy."
Richardson said he didn't have confidence in the criminal justice system as the final arbiter of life and death.
"If you're going to put somebody to death, the ... criminal justice system has to be perfect, and it isn't," he said.