TRENTON - New Jersey moved a step closer yesterday to becoming the first state to abolish its death penalty since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized capital punishment more than three decades ago.
After an emotional hearing lasting more than three hours, a Senate committee voted 8-2 in favor of legislation that would replace death sentences with life in prison without parole.
New Jersey has not executed a prisoner in more than 40 years, and a January study by a state commission found the death penalty cost the state's taxpayers more than a life sentence - and did not deter crime.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D., Union), said New Jersey would "lead the nation by recognizing that the death penalty has no reason to exist in a civilized society."
But a tearful Sharon Hazard-Johnson, whose parents were fatally stabbed and set on fire in their Pleasantville, Atlantic County, home in 2001 by Brian Wakefield, who is now a death-row inmate, said that ending the death penalty would further victimize her and her family.
"If the death penalty is broken, fix it. Don't get rid of it," said Hazard-Johnson, seated next to a picture of her parents. She said she was weary of pleading her case to politicians who she felt were only engaging in "stall tactics."
"This has taken more out of my life," she cried, pounding her fists on the table. "I don't want to be here."
Gov. Corzine and the two top Democratic legislative leaders support the bill, which would make New Jersey the 13th state without capital punishment. Still, it may not win easy approval.
Formal action on the bill has not been scheduled in the Assembly, and the Democratic caucus is spending most of its time on the state budget, said Joe Donnelly, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts (D., Camden).
And yesterday, two Democratic senators, Paul Sarlo of Bergen County and Nicholas Scutari of Union County, voted for the bill but warned that they remained torn and still might vote against it on the Senate floor.
The two legislators on the committee who voted against the bill, both Republicans, cited this week's arrests of six men suspected of plotting a terror attack at Fort Dix in arguing that the death penalty should remain an option.
Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R., Monmouth) said the state should retain the right to capital sentences in cases of murder by terrorists, or the slaying of law enforcement officials or children during a sex crime.
Lesniak said that abolishing New Jersey's death penalty would have no effect on death sentences secured through the federal system, where the suspected Fort Dix plotters are being prosecuted. (They face maximum life sentences.)
"Terrorists want to be martyrs," Lesniak said. "Let's not give them another reason to commit a heinous act."
Other opponents of the legislation said that convicted killers still could escape from prison, and that there had been no proof that any of New Jersey's nine death-row inmates had been wrongfully convicted. If the bill passes, they would have 60 days to choose whether to be resentenced to life in prison.
Professor Robert Blecker, of New York Law School, told legislators that the state commission that released the January study had failed to adequately study revising the state's death-penalty law, rather than abolishing it.
But other members of the commission said that would be too cumbersome and impractical. James Abbott, the police chief of West Orange, Essex County, said he began the panel's work supporting death sentences, but came to decide that they were costly, pointless, and did not work any better in other states.
"What sounded good in theory is actually failure in practice," Abbott said. He said that if he were killed in the line of duty, he would not want his family to suffer through a lengthy appeals process.
Bill Piper, of Pennington, Mercer County, said that after his 74-year-old mother was raped and slain, he favored life in prison for the killer, but many other relatives wanted death. They eventually relented, Piper said, sparing the family years of appeals but leaving it painfully polarized.
Piper told lawmakers that a swift life sentence would forever remove criminals from society, while giving survivors quicker closure and the ability to grieve without politicized dilemmas. "I ask that we honor my mother's kindness by sparing others this trauma," he said.
New Jersey reinstated its death penalty in 1982, but has not executed anyone since 1963. The Legislature imposed a moratorium on executions in December 2005, when it formed the death-penalty study commission.