Like a bad penny, the death penalty is back in the news again due to the conviction of Michael Astorga for the murder of sheriff’s Deputy James McGrane, Jr. Although the state legislature voted to repeal the death penalty and replace it with life without parole and Governor Richardson signed the bill into law over a year ago, Astorga committed his crime before the death penalty repeal went into effect on July 1, 2009 so he is still eligible for the ultimate punishment. Fortunately, this is probably the last time taxpayers will need to fund a death penalty murder prosecution. No other murders that occurred before the law changed involve the death penalty, with one exception—if someone is arrested and convicted for the multiple murders of the women found out on the West Mesa, it would also likely be a death penalty case.
The thing that has annoyed me the most about seeing Astorga’s conviction splashed across the news, is the reaction of the politicians. Not only is the “tough on crime” posturing back, it has a twist—now the question is which woman governor wannabe is the toughest on crime. Who’s willing to pull the switch, or plunge the needle? Heaven forbid we elect a squeamish governor who doesn’t have the stomach to “follow the law of the land.” As a feminist since birth, I’d always hoped that the advent of women in politics would project some rationality into the debate on the critical issues of the day. But American voters don’t seem to respond to rationality—and there is no issue more emotional than murder and the death penalty.
Also making news recently, was the Utah execution by firing squad of Ronnie Lee Gardner last Friday. Utah resumed use of the death penalty in 1977 when Gary Mark Gilmore was the first man to face the firing squad after the U.S. Supreme Court had first declared the death penalty cruel and unusual punishment and then changed course and allowed states to punish by death with restrictions. The difference this time was that the Utah AG Mark Shurtleff tweeted about the event. I think that’s an excellent demonstration of how capital punishment actually trivializes and de-values human life.
We will be hearing more about the death penalty in New Mexico because Michael Astorga gets a second jury trial to determine if he will be sentenced to death. Jury selection is currently scheduled to begin September 1st. The sentencing trial will last four to six weeks. New Mexico juries do not impose the death penalty very often. I hope they don’t do it in this case either. It would be a violation of the public’s will if Astorga is sentenced to death despite our repeal of the death penalty.
-Kathleen MacRae, Development Director
Learn more about the ACLU's work to abolish the death penalty, the ultimate denial of civil liberties.