Any day now, if she hasn’t already, Gov. Susana Martinez will call lawmakers to Santa Fe for a special session. A serious shortfall in tax revenues necessitates the session, or else she wouldn’t be calling it in the first place.
About a month ago, she said the session would be necessary, but she wanted to keep it a short one—maybe even a half-day—by hammering out a bill amending the budget beforehand.
But now, because of obstinate Democrats, she’s bringing up an unrelated issue, reinstatement of the death penalty—and in the aftermath of the horrific rape, dismemberment and death of 12-year-old Victoria Martens, the political timing is excellent.
It’s an issue that’s more symbolic than it is substantive, but it’s a good one for Republicans on the eve of an election in which 15 Senate and 28 House seats are being contested around the state. For our former prosecutor turned governor, it’s not just a matter of principle, it’s good politics.
That said, let me inject that I believe Martinez is sincere in her desire to re-impose the death penalty. Her years as a district attorney in southern New Mexico influenced her thinking and politics in many ways. DAs tend to come down on the hard side of crime and punishment, and Martinez hasn’t forgotten where she came from. Bringing back the death penalty for people like Victoria’s killers — or Baby Brianna’s torturers and killers, in the 2002 case Martinez prosecuted as DA—is something the governor willingly embraces.
Capital punishment, however, doesn’t necessarily mean justice. America’s history is replete with examples of unjust and wrongful executions. Since the year 2000, more than 70 people sentenced to death row have been exonerated of their “crimes,” oftentimes because of advancements in DNA evidence gathering. Our judicial system is far from foolproof, and mistakes are far too common. Moreover, there’s no real evidence that the death penalty is a deterrent to violent crime.
Still, most New Mexicans support the death penalty—one poll last month found that 59 percent of the state’s registered voters support bring capital punishment back—which brings us back to the politics of it all. To force a vote on the issue in the upcoming special session could put some Democrats running for election to the state legislature in a precarious position, and the Republicans know that.
It appears that Martinez pushed out this issue in an attempt to rein in Democratic lawmakers who don’t want to pre-negotiate a budget plan so the special session can be short and sweet. Some Dems have expressed a desire to debate the state’s budgetary issues in open session rather than allowing a fast-track bill to go through without much noise or talk of tax increases. Martinez is clear that she’s dead set against any sort of tax increase, opting instead to tap into funds in reserve to offset the budget shortfall.
If Dems want to make it tough on her, she seems willing to make things tough on them too.
That seems to have been the message that Martinez spokesperson Mike Lonegan was putting forward earlier in September. “Since it looks like the Senate Democrats don’t want to work on a budget solution in advance, that will mean a much longer session and it would make sense to include more items,” he said in an Associated Press report.
Then, a week or so after he said that, Martinez said she wanted to put the death penalty issue to a vote in the special session.
Good politics in a big election year.
Personally, I understand why people would want to see some evil-doers executed; that’s exactly what some rapists and murderers deserve. But that’s more about vengeance than it is justice, for nothing we can do will ever reverse the evil deeds they’ve done.
On a more pragmatic note, I think the criminal justice system is too flawed to trust it with the power of death over life. Too often, the law and real justice are two very different things.
And when the death penalty becomes an election-year issue, I’m certain that it’s politics, not principle, that’s driving the issue.
Tom McDonald is editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange and editor of the Roswell Daily Record. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.