Throughout my adult life, I have been a firm believer in the death penalty as a just punishment -- in very rare instances, and only for the most heinous crimes. I still believe that. . . .
Nevertheless, Governor Richardson said he ultimately signed the bill because he "do[es] not have confidence in the criminal justice system as it currently operates to be the final arbiter when it comes to who lives and who dies for their crimes," adding that he was bothered by the fact that minorities are "over-represented in the prison population and on death row." His action has sparked praise from the American Civil Liberties Union who said in an official statement:
Gov. Richardson’s decision today to sign the bill abolishing the death penalty in New Mexico is a historic step and a clear sign that the United States continues to make significant progress toward eradicating capital punishment once and for all. Gov. 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. It is a system incapable of ensuring that innocent lives are not unjustly taken. It is a system plagued by racial, economic and geographic discrimination. And it is a system that police chiefs, criminologists and statistical experts around the country agree does not deter crime. Gov. Richardson deserves enormous credit for acting in the best interests of the people of his state and the people of this country.I wonder if this might open up new avenues to the Supreme Court for death row inmates to argue against the constitutionality of the death penalty. The Court has previously held that the death penalty does not violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on "cruel and unusual punishment." Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976). As with all of its Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, see Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 101 (1958) ("The [Eighth] Amendment must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society."), its decision was predicated on "evolving standards of decency." Gregg, 428 U.S. at 173. Recently, in Kennedy v. Louisiana, 128 S. Ct. 2641 (2008), the Court held that the imposition of the death penalty for the rape of a child was unconstitutional--at least where the life of the victim was not taken--partly because only five states had laws punishing such conduct on the books. Those five states were not enough to show "evidence of a national consensus with respect to the [imposition of the] death penalty for child rapists." Id. at 2653. Following this logic with respect to future challenges, if other states follow New Mexico's lead in banning capital punishment altogether--which seems possible given that roughly 14 other states have now banned the death penalty--the Court may choose to revisit its conclusion that the death penalty comports with the Eighth Amendment.
It is unclear, of course, how many state pronouncements against the death penalty would be necessary to establish that the penalty offends our "evolving standards of decency." Moreover, one has to wonder how the possibility of habeas relief would, if at all, influence the Court’s decision to overrule its precedent on capital punishment. Although collateral attacks on state court judgments are, as Craig noted, difficult to successfully lodge, a pronouncement that the Eighth Amendment prohibited the death penalty would be made retroactive to all pending death penalty prisoners notwithstanding Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989), which generally requires habeas petitioners to depend on the law existing at the time their decision went final. See Penry v. Lynaugh, 492 U.S. 302, 330 (1989) (noting that one of two exceptions to Teague retroactivity “should be understood to cover . . . rules prohibiting a certain category of punishment for a class of defendants. . . ."). Decisions “on the merits,” and thus within the scope of 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1) would likely also be subject to collateral attack assuming (as I do) that the applicable Teague exception would be imputed to cover the statute.
The Court should not refrain from holding the death penalty unconstitutional simply because it could upset many state court judgments, but one nevertheless has to wonder if the practical ramifications of such a decision would somehow influence the Court's decision to reconsider its precedent.