Monday, November 19, 2007

New Jersey Moves to End Death Penalty

November 19, 2007

New Jersey Moves to End Death Penalty

New York Times

TRENTON, Nov. 18 — The eight men confined to the Capital Sentences Unit of 3 Wing in the New Jersey State Prison, ranging in age from 77 to 30, have a better chance of dying of old age than they do of lethal injection on an executioner’s gurney.

For one thing, the state has not executed anyone since 1963.

But in a move that is being closely watched by both sides of the capital punishment debate, New Jersey is on track to become the first state to repeal the death penalty since the United States Supreme Court allowed executions to resume in 1976.

A bill that would abolish New Jersey’s death penalty was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee this spring and is now on a fast track to be considered by both houses within weeks. The Senate president, Richard J. Codey, who supports the measure, said this month that he planned to bring the bill to a vote before the full chamber by the end of the year.

In the Assembly, the speaker, Joseph J. Roberts Jr., has set a committee hearing on Dec. 6 for a nearly identical bill, and he said he expected a floor vote the following week.

Gov. Jon S. Corzine, who is opposed to the death penalty, has said that he will sign the measure into law if it reaches his desk.

There has been a growing call for states to take another look at their death penalty laws in recent years as more inmates on death row are exonerated. In addition, questions about whether executions amount to cruel and unusual punishment have prompted several states, including New Jersey, to review their methods of capital punishment.

But supporters of the death penalty have as ammunition a number of recent academic studies backing one of their principal arguments: that executions do have a deterrent effect on the murder rate.

For their part, opponents of the death penalty hope that that if the bill becomes law, it could spark further re-examination of capital sentence laws across the country.

“It would be a historic measure,” said Richard C. Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a research group opposed to capital punishment. “I think it is part of this bigger picture where the death penalty is on the defensive.”

In recent rulings, the United States Supreme Court has narrowed the use of capital punishment, declaring it unconstitutional to execute juvenile killers or the mentally retarded. And late last month, the court effectively halted executions nationwide until it decides whether the drug cocktail most commonly used in lethal injections is constitutional.

What makes the New Jersey initiative unusual, groups opposed to the death penalty say, is that a state legislature rather than a court or a governor would be declaring an end to capital punishment. In other states where executions have recently been halted, the decision was based on a court ruling, as in New York, or through a moratorium imposed by the governor, as in Illinois and Maryland.

“When you have a legislature taking a stand, it’s not three or four people on a bench,” said Shari Silberstein, a director at Equal Justice USA, a group based in Maryland that advocates abolishing the death penalty. “It’s more reflective of the popular will.”

Ms. Silberstein added: “A state that deliberately decided to have a death penalty would be deliberately deciding not to have a death penalty. And I think that means something.”

Other states, like Nebraska and New Mexico, have considered bills that would abolish the death penalty, but those efforts have fallen short.

While opponents of the death penalty consider New Jersey their best hope for a legislative victory, approval is not assured. Although Democrats control both houses in the Legislature, not all of them are likely to vote along party lines. Democratic leaders in both houses agree that passage in the Assembly is highly likely, but they say getting the measure through the Senate could be more difficult.

Mr. Codey, who has thrown his full support behind the bill, said he was not declaring victory yet. “I think it’ll be close,” he said.

Complicating the task for Mr. Codey, proponents of the death penalty do not plan to sit by idly.

State Senator Gerald Cardinale, a Republican and the Senate’s leading social conservative, said he planned to start lobbying members to support a bill that would retain the death penalty but narrow the circumstances in which it would apply. That measure could attract votes from legislators who generally oppose capital punishment but do not want to appear soft on crime.

Robert Blecker, a professor of criminal law at New York Law School who has pushed for keeping New Jersey’s death penalty in place, said that fast-tracking the legislation does not leave time for the consideration that an issue as significant as capital punishment deserves. “This is being done without deliberation, without debate,” he said of the bill. “It’s a rush to judgment.”

Professor Blecker contended that Democrats were trying to speed the bill through the Legislature while ignoring the argument that society can benefit from the death penalty.

“There is something extraordinarily significant and symbolic about the process of condemning somebody to death, to say to someone, ‘You do not deserve to live,’ ” he said. “Even if it is not carried out, it still is a signal.”

A handful of recent studies that looked at murder rates around the country have concluded that the death penalty does prevent murders: from 3 to 18 for every inmate put to death. The effect is greatest in states, like Texas, that execute criminals relatively quickly and frequently, some studies say.

The studies have been criticized on a number of grounds, with some arguing that the effects of executions, if any, cannot be disentangled from larger social factors like the overall crime rate, police budgets and the economy. A 13-member commission in New Jersey that studied the death penalty reviewed some of the studies and found them “conflicting and inconclusive.”

The death penalty in the state has been effectively unenforceable since the state’s procedures for lethal injection expired in September 2005, and the Department of Corrections, which is charged with rewriting them, has no plans to do so.

After an extensive review, the state commission recommended in January that the death penalty be abolished and replaced with life in prison without the possibility of parole. The commission determined that capital punishment in New Jersey was a waste of state resources that served no legitimate punitive purpose. According to the most recent figures from the Corrections Department, the state spent $84,474 in 2006 housing each inmate on death row, compared with $32,400 for a prisoner in the general population.

In addition, those costs do not take into account what the state spends to defend capital cases through the public defender’s office, or to hear the numerous appeals that are usually filed after a death sentence is rendered.

Mr. Codey, who sponsored the bill that reinstated the death penalty in New Jersey in 1982, said that ending capital punishment here had nothing to do with shaping the national debate or sending a message to other states.

“People’s opinions since 1981 have changed,” he said. “And I can’t intelligently make the argument that it’s going to deter anybody because they know they’re never going to get executed.”

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