updated 3/18/2009 9:31:35 PM ET 2009-03-19T01:31:35

Gov. Bill Richardson signed legislation Wednesday to repeal New Mexico's death penalty, calling it the "most difficult decision in my political life."

The legislation replaces lethal injection with a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

"Faced with the reality that our system for imposing the death penalty can never be perfect, my conscience compels me to replace the death penalty with a solution that keeps society safe," the Democratic governor said at a news conference in the Capitol.

New Mexicans will be safer with the punishment of life in prison without parole because the worst criminals "will never get out of prison," he said.

Richardson faced a deadline of midnight for making a decision on the bill that lawmakers sent him last week.

New Mexico is only the second state to ban executions since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

Joins 14 other states
By signing the measure lawmakers sent him last week, New Mexico joins 14 other states that do not impose capital punishment.

And it will be only the second state to ban executions since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. New Jersey was the first, in 2007.

New Mexico has executed one person since 1960, child killer Terry Clark in 2001.

Two men are currently on death row, Robert Fry of Farmington and Timothy Allen of Bloomfield. Their sentences will not be affected by the repeal.

The repeal takes effect on July 1, and applies to crimes committed after that date. Currently, New Mexico allows for the death penalty for certain murders, including killing a child, a law enforcement or correctional officer and a witness to a crime.

Richardson said he has long believed — and still does — that the death penalty was a "just punishment" in rare cases for the worst crimes, but decided to sign the repeal legislation because of flaws in how the death penalty was applied. He pointed out that DNA evidence has shown that innocent people have been placed on death row around the country.

"Regardless of my personal opinion about the death penalty, I do 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 crime," Richardson said. "If the state is going to undertake this awesome responsibility, the system to impose this ultimate penalty must be perfect and can never be wrong."

Solicited input over the weekend
In preparing for his decision, the governor solicited input over the weekend from state residents. According to his office, he got more than 9,000 responses by e-mail and in person.

"In a society which values individual life and liberty above all else, where justice and not vengeance is the singular guiding principle of our system of criminal law, the potential for wrongful conviction and, God forbid, execution of an innocent person stands as anathema to our very sensibilities as human beings," Richardson said in prepared remarks. "That is why I'm signing this bill into law."

Among those urging the governor to sign the bill was the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Church officials lobbied hard for repeal.

Lt. Gov. Diane Denish said she delivered a handwritten note to the governor on Wednesday indicating her support for repeal.

The New Mexico Sheriffs' and Police Association opposed repeal, saying capital punishment deters violence against police officers, jailers and prison guards. District attorneys also opposed the legislation, arguing that the death penalty was a useful prosecutorial tool.

"I'm worried for our law enforcement officers who are out there courageously doing their job every night. We've lost a layer of protection and it's a sad day in New Mexico," Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White said after hearing the governor's decision.

New Mexico was one of several states considering repealing the death penalty this year.

In Kansas, a bill failed to clear the Senate this week.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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