Why New Mexico wants to restore the death penalty

The governor of New Mexico is citing the recent high-profile killings of police officers in her state and elsewhere as a reason to bring back the death penalty. 

Russell Contreras/AP
Albuquerque firefighters salute as law enforcement officers escort the body of a New Mexico police officer who was shot and killed during a traffic stop as the procession leaves Albuquerque, N.M., Monday, Aug. 15, 2016.

New Mexico's governor is reframing the death penalty debate as the proper response to recent police killings, including one officer killed Friday in her own state. 

This response to police killings bucks a national trend as many states and courts are backing away from the death penalty, in part due to practical constraints on cost and the drugs used in capital punishment. In New Mexico, the push for its return faces opposition from Democrats, which have the majority in the state legislature. 

But Republican Gov. Susanna Martinez said the shooting of a police officer in Hatch, N.M., on Friday, as well as several police killings elsewhere in the nation, prove the punishment is needed to deter society's grossest crimes, Dan Boyd reported for the Albuquerque Journal.

"People need to ask themselves, if the man who ambushed and killed five police officers in Dallas had lived, would he deserve the ultimate penalty," Governor Martinez said Wednesday in a prepared statement. "How about the heartless violent criminals who killed Officer Jose Chavez in Hatch and left his children without their brave and selfless dad? Do they deserve the ultimate penalty? Absolutely. Because a society that fails to adequately protect and defend those who protect all of us is a society that will be undone and unsafe."

New Mexico repealed the death penalty in 2009, and Wednesday's announcement marked the first time the governor had brought up the issue since it failed to pass a Democratic legislature in 2011. 

Third Judicial District Attorney Mark D'Antonio, whose office filed a murder charge against Officer Chavez' killers, said such crimes could be a good reason to discuss the death penalty again.

"The death penalty should be the last resort for the worst of the worst and in certain situations like for cop-killers," he said in a statement.

The new argument goes up against recent struggles even in generally conservative states to carry out executions, as one company after another has refused to sell its drugs to states for lethal injection, as the Christian Science Monitor's Patrik Jonsson wrote:

Public opinion – as shown in polls as well as the frequency of death penalty convictions – has shifted. Fifty-six percent of Americans favored capital punishment in 2015, but that's down from 78 percent just 20 years ago, according to the Pew Research Center.

Last year, the US saw only 49 death sentences imposed, a 33 percent drop from the previous year, and down from a peak of 315 in 1996. Two-thirds of last year’s death sentences came from juries in only 2 percent of US counties, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

A death penalty proposal has received similar framing in Illinois, where Republican state Rep. Mark Batinick wants the killing of first responders to be punishable by death, the Illinois News Network reported. Illinois abolished its death penalty in 2011.

"These are the people that put themselves in harm's way to protect us," he has said. "They run into wherever the danger is, and right now I feel like they don’t necessarily feel like we have their back and we're protecting them."

But Robert Dunham for the Death Penalty Information Center said the measure is unlikely to move forward, noting that Louisiana and Texas both have a death penalty already.  

The representative cited the ambush and killings of police in Baton Rouge, La., and Dallas as giving people a new reason to support the death penalty. 

"I think if you look at the incidents that have happened recently and then what the effects of those incidents are after the fact, maybe people will just start changing their mind," he said, according to the Illinois News Network.

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