New Jersey lawmakers vote to end death penalty
Gov. Corzine says he will sign the bill into law soon, which would make the state the first to abolish capital punishment since 1965.
By Henry Weinstein
Los Angeles Times
December 13, 2007
The New Jersey Assembly voted today to abolish the death penalty, poising the state to become the first since 1965 to eliminate capital punishment.
The state Senate earlier this week also voted to end executions and replace them with sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Gov. Jon S. Corzine, a longtime foe of the death penalty, said today before the vote that he would sign the bill into law within a few days; aides said it would happen most likely early next week.
At a news conference in Trenton, Corzine said, "We would be better served as a society by having a clear and certain outcome for individuals who carry out heinous crimes. And that's what I think we are doing -- making certain that individuals will be in prison without any possibility of parole."
He acknowledged that by signing the bill he could be opening himself to political attack, but said that the current system clearly was not working and "for lots of different reasons, I think the state is taking a painful but constructive step."
Although New Jersey has not had an execution since 1963, the campaign has drawn attention around the country. Sister Helen Prejean, whose work against the death penalty was dramatized in the film "Dead Man Walking," has made a dozen trips to New Jersey in support of the measure and predicted that other states will follow its lead.
However, attempts to abolish the death penalty in several other states have failed in recent years although it now seems possible that Maryland, whose governor opposes capital punishment, will go the same route as New Jersey. Currently, there is a nationwide de facto moratorium on executions, spurred by legal challenges contending that lethal injection, which is used in most states, is excessively painful. The U.S. Supreme Court will take up the issue in January.
If the New Jersey bill becomes law, it will be the culmination of an eight-year campaign launched by Lorry Post, the father of a murder victim, who came to the conclusion that capital punishment served no useful purpose and founded New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Started in a church basement, the group grew to 12,000 members and forged an unusual coalition of clerics, legislators from both parties, families of murder victims and even law enforcement officials, all of whom decided that they wanted a change.
Although some said they still favor the idea of the death penalty, there is broad acknowledgment that it simply was not working in New Jersey. A statewide poll taken earlier this year showed that by a margin of 51% to 41%, New Jerseyans preferred that criminals be sentenced to life in prison without parole instead of the death penalty.
This week, state Sen. President Richard J. Codey, a Republican, said he had voted for the current law in 1982 because it provided for "exhaustive appeals" to make sure that those convicted were definitely guilty. Since then, prosecutors have garnered 60 death sentences, but 52 have been reversed and there have been no executions.
"How can I argue the deterrent effect of the death penalty when we haven't had one?" Codey said at a hearing in Trenton on Monday.
In late November, family members of 62 murder victims sent a letter to legislators urging passage of the abolition bill. The relatives emphasized the personal toll the process had taken on them.
"Capital punishment drags victims' loved ones through an agonizing and lengthy process, holding out the promise of one punishment in the beginning and often resulting in a life sentence in the end anyway," the authors wrote.
"A life without parole sentence for killers right from the start would keep society safe, hold killers responsible for their brutal and depraved acts, and would start as soon as we left the courtroom instead of leaving us in limbo," the family members said, referring to the lengthy appellate process in capital cases.
A group of police chiefs and prosecutors said in late November that the state had pursued death sentences 197 times since 1982, succeeding only 60 times. Of those condemned, only eight remain on death row. The other 52 death sentences have been reversed, said Edward DeFazio, the district attorney in Hudson County who has played a key role in the abolition campaign.
"New Jersey citizens have borne the brunt of the costs of those death penalty trials and reversals," estimated at $250 million, "diverting precious resources that could have made our jobs easier and kept the public safe," the law enforcement officials, including DeFazio, said in a letter to legislators urging abolition.
The officials also acknowledged that "despite our very best intentions, the system makes mistakes and innocent people are wrongfully sentenced to death." Just last May, a man was cleared by DNA testing of a murder in New Jersey after he had spent 17 years on death row.
DeFazio served on a 13-member blue-ribbon commission that issued a 100-page report recommending abolition. The report said the costs of the death penalty were greater than the costs of keeping certain murderers in prison for life.
The lone dissenter on the commission was John F. Russo, former president of the state Senate who wrote the death penalty statute. He contended that "the fundamental problem" was "liberal judges and other individuals who have consistently disregarded the legislative will and refused to enforce the law as written." But that view did not gain traction in the state. Former real estate saleswoman Celeste Fitzgerald, who was the chief organizer of the abolition campaign, said the developments this year were the products of a serious "statewide grass-roots" campaign. "We have exposed the flaws in the death penalty and have shown how it harms us in practice," Fitzgerald said. In particular, she said, the current situation "condemns the family members of murder victims to an indefinite life in limbo," putting them in a court system where for years they are "tied to the killer of their loved one."