Legislation abolishing New Mexico's death penalty has cleared the U.S. state's Senate Judiciary Committee _ its highest hurdle yet _ and is headed to the full Senate for a vote.
It already has passed New Mexico's House of Representatives, so if it were approved by the state's Senate without change, it would go to the governor for his signature.
The bill replaces capital punishment with a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. There have been serious repeal efforts in New Mexico over the past decade, but no bill has gotten this far.
"It's been a long time coming," Michelle Giger, a founder of Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, said Monday after the judiciary panel's 6-5 vote.
"We don't want it. We don't need it. It doesn't work. So let's get rid of it," added Giger, whose father was fatally shot by a drifter in Santa Rosa in 1984.
New Mexico has executed one person since 1960. There are two men on death row whose sentences would be unaffected by the repeal.
Gov. Bill Richardson has supported the death penalty in the past but has said he would consider signing a repeal bill if it reached his desk.
Sam Millsap, a former prosecutor from Texas, told the judiciary panel he no longer supports the death penalty because the judicial system is too imperfect to ensure that the innocent are always protected. New Mexico courts, like those of Texas, "are not infallible," he told lawmakers.
District attorneys oppose the repeal, arguing that the death penalty is a deterrent to murder.
State Senate Republican Whip William Payne said life-without-parole sentences could endanger the correctional officers who must oversee convicted murderers.
"We may lock them up for life, but we don't lock them away from people for life," he said.
State Sen. Richard Martinez, another repeal opponent, said there is no evidence any innocent person has been executed in New Mexico.
Under the repeal proposal, convicted murders may be imprisoned "but they're alive and they're doing as they please," Martinez said.
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