Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights, North America

DEATH PENALTY-US: Court Says, &#39Pay Up – Or Let Live!&#39

Adrianne Appel

BOSTON, Apr 23 2008 (IPS) - After eight years and millions of dollars spent, New Mexico has decided to quit pursuing two death penalty cases when lawmakers ducked away from voting additional money for court-appointed defence lawyers.

The unprecedented decision to drop capital charges on cost grounds raises the question whether New Mexico prosecutors will ever want to press again death penalty charges. It also suggests that the burgeoning costs of pursuing death penalty cases in other U.S. states may emerge as a new key factor in hastening the end to capital punishment in the country.

Earlier this month, the chief prosecutor in the case against Reis Lopez and Robert Young – both accused of murdering a prison guard, Ralph Garcia, during a jail riot in 1999 – withdrew his death penalty charges on orders from a district court.

The court issued its directive after the state legislature adjourned in February until January 2009 without voting for more money for the court-appointed lawyers&#39 office. A court had earlier said the state legislature should allocate another 200,000 dollars to the office after lawyers defending Lopez and Young complained about lack of money to meet their fees. Fifteen inmates, all but three of whom have seen their charges dropped or reduced, were originally under investigation, in a case that had already cost the state millions of dollars.

"There was no one in the legislature… to sponsor a bill to that effect," Gail Chasey, a New Mexico lawmaker, explained to IPS. "We have declining revenues and have to balance our budget."

She added that the lawmakers were "relieved" that they could go off until next year without having to deal with this "big ticket item".

"It&#39s really good news that the death penalty has been taken off the table," Kathleen MacRae of the New Mexico Coalition to Repeal the Death Penalty told IPS after the public prosecutor formally dropped the death penalty charges. "It&#39s good news for the state and its money – and good news for the men and their families."

Jacqueline Robins, a so-called "public defender" who represents Lopez, was one of the lawyers who filed the complaint to the court about lack of money to meet her professional costs.

"Ours was a legal argument," she told IPS. "If New Mexico is going to pursue the death penalty, it has to make funds available to the defence as well as the prosecution."

Robins said she did not set out to overturn the death penalty in the case, but was glad this was the outcome – and so was Lopez.

"The (assistant prosecutor) at one point claimed we were doing this as a ploy to get rid of the death penalty. I said that facing bankruptcy in order to do my job was not a ploy," she said.

Earlier, Rachel Garcia, the widow of the prison guard, had urged the state not to seek the death penalty for those responsible for her husband&#39s death.

The decision to drop the death penalty charges in the high-profile case is likely to play a role in the ongoing debate in New Mexico over outlawing the death penalty altogether.

"We are very close," Diane Wood of the New Mexico American Civil Liberties Union told IPS. "The House and the Senate want a (death penalty) repeal."

Bills drafted by Chasey to abolish the death penalty were passed in one chamber, the House, in 2005 and 2007. Supporters say it was Governor Bill Richardson, with his veto threat, that blocked the bills becoming law.

"I am in favour of New Mexico&#39s death penalty law," the governor has said. "It sends a strong message of zero tolerance for heinous crimes, and it provides certain justice for the victims&#39 families."

Richardson, who recently dropped out of the race to become a Democratic candidate for the next presidency, has said that he would leave office if ever offered a cabinet post. This would apparently pave the way for New Mexico becoming one of the next states to scrap the death penalty. New Jersey abolished the death penalty last year.

"Even if he doesn&#39t leave, maybe he will be ready to change his position," said Chasey, suggesting that as a declared Catholic, the governor might be open to influence from his church leaders.

New Mexico&#39s decision to drop death penalty cases on cost grounds is likely to be noted with keen interest in the other 36 death penalty states, several of them facing crippling bills from maintaining their death penalty systems. Reviews of the cost and fairness of the death penalty are currently underway in California, Georgia, Maryland, Nebraska, Ohio and Utah.

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