N.J. Assembly votes to end death penalty

Governor to sign bill next week, marking end of 8-year campaign

December 14, 2007|By Henry Weinstein | Henry Weinstein,LOS ANGELES TIMES

The New Jersey Assembly voted yesterday to abolish the death penalty, positioning 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 Corzine, a longtime foe of the death penalty, said before the vote that he would sign the bill into law within a few days; aides said it would happen 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 open 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 national attention. 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.

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 many states, is excessively painful.

The U.S. Supreme Court will take up the issue in January.

If the New Jersey bill becomes law, it would 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.

Post 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 political parties, families of murder victims and 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 in 2007 showed that by a margin of 51 percent to 41 percent, New Jerseyans preferred that criminals be sentenced to life in prison without parole instead of receiving the death penalty.

This week, New Jersey state Senate 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 [appellate] 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.

Henry Weinstein writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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