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Hope rising in US for national death penalty ban

Death penalty opponents in the United States hope New Mexico's decision to ban capital punishment is a turning point, as a crippling economic crisis becomes their latest argument for abolition.

world Updated: Mar 26, 2009 12:50 IST

Death penalty opponents in the United States hope New Mexico's decision to ban capital punishment is a turning point, as a crippling economic crisis becomes their latest argument for abolition.

Last week Democratic Governor Bill Richardson made his southwestern state the 15th in the nation to outlaw executions, after state lawmakers voted for the move.

Richardson's "courageous and enlightened decision should send a powerful message to other states, governors and Americans about the need to take a hard look at our error-prone, discriminatory and bankrupting system of capital punishment," the American Civil Liberties Union said after the bill became law.

The director of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project, John Holdridge, highlighted the economic reasoning behind a ban, citing "the exorbitant cost to the taxpayers of maintaining the death penalty."

Supporters of the new law said that replacing the death sentence with life in prison without parole will save the state more than one million dollars each year.

Opponents maintain the death penalty is a deterrent to the most heinous crimes. Despite the New Mexico decision, 35 of the 50 US states still have capital punishment laws on their books.

Twenty prisoners have already been executed in 2009. The southern state of Texas is the national record holder -- executing 12 this year, and in 2008 accounting for 18 out of the 37 executions nationwide.

Richard Dieter, director of the anti-capital punishment group Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), told AFP that last week's decision is critical, and that "some states had to take a lead."

It is time for state legislators to begin reevaluating the punishment, he said, adding that he thought "we'll see more states doing that kind of review."

Economic reasons are key to prompting new reviews, he said.

The cost "is the issue of the day. (It is) getting these legislators to give these bills a hearing and to give them a vote... because any program that is offered and says we can save money" is getting consideration, he said.

If a wave of states follow New Mexico's lead, supporters may pursue a repeal of the Supreme Court's 1976 reinstatement of the death penalty, citing the US Constitution's rebuke of "cruel and unusual punishment" to argue for national abolition.

"In these economic times, government must consider its limited resources, take a careful look at all of its programs and policy choices, and retain only what works and works well," said Diann Rust-Tierney, director of the National Coalition To Abolish The Death Penalty.

Death sentences can be up to 10 times more expensive than a life prison sentence. In addition to a longer trial, the extended appeals procedures the penalty entails can also take a costly toll, with defending lawyers often paid by the state.

Legislative moves across the United States are being followed closely by advocates of a ban.

An abolition law is being considered by state houses in Montana, Colorado and Illinois and two-year moratoriums on carrying out executions are under consideration in Missouri and Nevada. Such a measure is already under way in Nebraska.

Legislative proposals have also been filed in Connecticut and Texas and last week a proposal was filed with the US Congress to ban executions at the federal level.

But the issue remains political fraught, despite legislative moves.

On Wednesday the New Hampshire House of Representatives voted 193-174 in favor of overturning the state's death penalty statute. But the move faces further legislative hurdles and a likely veto from Governor John Lynch.

"The next step is that the bill will go to the (state) Senate," House spokesperson Cissy Taylor said, pointing to previous attempts to change the law.

"In 2000 and again two years ago there were moves to repeal the death penalty, but they failed, in 2000 it was vetoed by then governor Jeanne Shaheen."

Today's governor Lynch looks set to do the same. "I believe there are some crimes that are so heinous, the death penalty is warranted. If legislation repealing the death penalty were to reach my desk I would veto it," he said in a statement.

As political battles are played out in New Hampshire and elsewhere, DPIC's Dieter warns against a rushed celebration of the death penalty's demise.

"It's not going to happen all at once," he said.

Yet "as it's used rarely and the costs continue, the frustration with the death penalty rises. I think we will see more states saying it's just not worth keeping."

First Published: Mar 26, 2009 12:49 IST