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New Jersey Abolishes the Death Penalty

by Matt Clarke

On December 12, 2007, New Jersey became the second state since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976 to legislatively abolish the death penalty, replacing it with life without parole. That same day, New Jersey Governor Jon S. Corzine commuted the sentences of the eight prisoners on New Jersey’s Death Row to life without parole.

Although New Jersey reinstated its death penalty in 1982, no one had been executed by New Jersey since 1963, nine years before the U.S. Supreme Court declared the procedures for imposing the death penalty unconstitutional and thirteen years before it allowed the use of new procedures. This endless delay in executions led some prosecutors to join the abolition advocates.

“To continue with the death penalty where there is no hope the state will ever carry it out is a cruel hoax on families who have lost a loved one and seek some finality from the justice system,” said Gloucester County Prosecutor Sean Dalton. “This repeal will ensure in the heinous cases that offenders will have no prospect of re-entering society by getting paroled for the rest of their lives.”

The repeal of the death penalty is largely credited to Governor Corzine’s long-standing principled stand against capital punishment which he maintained even when political advisors told him it could cost him an earlier election to the Senate.

“Today, New Jersey evolves,” said Corzine. “This is a day of progress for us and for the millions of people across our nation and around the globe who reject the death penalty as a moral or practical response to the grievous, even heinous, crime of murder.”

Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking and death penalty abolition advocate, was at the governor’s side for the signing of the bill replacing the death penalty with life without parole. She said it would make New Jersey a “beacon on a hill.” To honor New Jersey’s action, Rome, Italy, shined a golden light on the Coliseum, once the venue for public executions and gladiator events, now a symbol of the worldwide movement to abolish the death penalty.

“We have seized the moment and now join the ranks of other states and countries that view the death penalty as discriminatory, immoral and barbaric,” Assemblyman and bill sponsor Wilfredo Caraballo, D-Essex, said. “We’re a better state than one that puts people to death.”

Corzine agreed saying, “Today ... is a momentous day. A day of progress.”

Corzine insisted that society was not forgiving murders. He maintained that the law was needed because society could not ensure that the innocent were not executed along with the guilty.

“Society must ask, is it not morally superior to imprison 100 people for life than it is to execute all 100 when it is probable we execute an innocent?” asked Corzine.

Still, the repeal of the death penalty is not without controversy. Polls show that a majority of New Jersey residents opposed the abolition.

New Jersey residents Richard and Maureen Kanka are vocal opponents of the abolition. They are the parents of 6-year-old Megan whose rape and murder by Jessee Timmendequas, a sex offender who lived in their neighborhood, led to the adoption of sex offender registration laws—known as “Megan’s Law”—throughout the nation. Timmendequas was on Death Row when Corzine commuted his sentence.

Even so, some of the bill’s strongest supporters were until recently some of the loudest advocates of the death penalty. Richard S. Codey, State Senate President and moving force behind the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1982, supported abolition. So did Senator Raymond J. Lesniak, who told Corzine that his 2000 bid for a seat in the U.S. Senate could be endangered by his vocal anti-capital-punishment stance. Even Assemblyman Gordon M. Johnson, a former police officer and former believer in “an eye for an eye,” supported the bill.

Republican State Senator John A. Palaia and three other senators voted with 18 Democrats to produce the 21 votes needed for passage. In the Assembly, where Democrats have a 50 to 30 majority, it passed 44-36.

There was criticism about the timing of the vote. It was done in the last week of a lame duck session. The timing was no coincidence according to the bill’s sponsors. It was a strategic decision to smooth passage of the controversial legislation.

New Jersey joins twelve other states and the District of Columbia in not having a death penalty. The last state to legislatively abolish capital punishment was Vermont in 1987. 1,099 people have been executed since 1976. The peak year was 1999 with 98 executions. 53 were executed in 2006.

Sources: Associated Press;;; New York Times; Gannett New Jersey

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