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Repeal closer for death penalty

A committee's vote cleared the way for the measure to go to the full N.J. Senate, where passage is likely.

Clearing the record

TRENTON - Linda Rusconi lost her sister, Tara Woods, when a robber shot her in the head at an after-hours club in Passaic County. Rusconi wants the death penalty to remain the law in New Jersey.

She says she cannot abide the thought of Woods' killer living out his life in prison, "getting to exercise, read books, watch TV."

Charles Bennett lost his daughter Wendy when her husband fatally shotgunned her and the couple's two children last year in the family's Cumberland County home. The husband then turned the gun on himself.

His son-in-law's suicide eased the surviving relatives' pain, Bennett admits. Still, he says, the state should abolish capital punishment.

These grieving relatives and others provided raw testimony before a legislative committee yesterday as New Jersey moved a step closer to becoming the first state to legislatively abolish the death penalty since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated it three decades ago.

After the testimony, eight Democrats on the state Senate Budget Committee gave majority approval to the measure to end capital punishment.

The vote along strict partisan lines cleared the way for the repeal to go before the full Senate.

Though a vote has yet to be scheduled, Senate President Richard J. Codey (D., Essex) has pledged to hold it before the end of the lame-duck session on Jan. 8. A General Assembly committee is expected to consider the repeal next week, with a full vote in that chamber likely to take place Dec. 13.

With Democratic Gov. Corzine, Codey and Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts (D., Camden) all backing the repeal, it is expected to become law.

Instead of death, the law would imprison killers for life without parole. In his testimony yesterday, Gary Hilton, a retired warden of four New Jersey prisons, said that decades behind bars was severe punishment.

"Growing old in prison offers an awful lot of retribution," Hilton said. "The older you are, the more infirm you are, the bigger target you are for the younger thugs."

In wide-ranging testimony, prosecutors, religious leaders and civil-rights activists denounced the death penalty.

Though the measure was before the budget panel because of the cost of maintaining death row and the long appeals process, the debate touched only briefly on financial matters. Instead, it focused on questions of morality, justice and deterrence.

The New Jersey Catholic Conference urged lawmakers to end capital punishment. Trenton Bishop John M. Smith told the panel that the church opposed the penalty "because we recognize the dignity of all human life."

Former Ocean County Prosecutor Thomas F. Kelaher said he grew opposed to the death penalty after he realized how difficult it was to carry it out.

Others arguing for an end to the ultimate punishment cited growing worries about the fairness of a significant number of convictions.

New Jersey's last execution was in 1963, and its death-row population of eight is down from a high of 17 in 2001. In recent years, the state's liberal Supreme Court has set aside numerous verdicts and systemically narrowed the grounds on which people could be put to death.

Kelaher called pursuing death an "exercise in futility." He served on a state review panel that by a 12-1 vote recommended in January that New Jersey abolish capital punishment.

In his testimony yesterday, the panel's sole dissenter, former state Senate President John F. Russo, said the public was divided about a repeal.

If there was strong public support for abolition, Russo said, the Legislature would resort to taking the matter up during the lame-duck session. Of lawmakers to vote on the repeal, almost a quarter will step down next month, either because they were defeated for reelection or are retiring.

Not for deterrence, but for retribution, Russo said, the death penalty should be kept in place for the "most vicious, serious, grievous murders."