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Legislators look inward on death-penalty repeal

Some who backed execution are having second thoughts. Others say their support is strong.

TRENTON - State Sen. Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) has been battling himself as he contemplates whether to support a proposal to abolish the state's death penalty.

"I've hung around most of my adult life being a proud supporter of the death penalty, a proud supporter, believing an eye for an eye," Sweeney said.

Politics pervades state legislatures, but some New Jersey lawmakers find themselves struggling with their consciences as they debate the death penalty. The reason: While many have supported capital punishment, they realize New Jersey's death-penalty law has been toothless.

New Jersey reinstated the death penalty in 1982 and has eight men on death row but hasn't executed anyone since 1963.

After hearing testimony and studying the issue, Sweeney said, he is ready to support making New Jersey the first state to eliminate the death penalty since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated it 31 years ago.

"It has been an eye-opening experience because the false hope we give families with the death penalty is wrong," he said. "It's wrong to give false hope. I think this is the best thing to help families bring closure to horrible, horrible incidents in their life."

The effort to abolish capital punishment in New Jersey stems from a January report by a special state commission. It found the death penalty was a more expensive sentence than life in prison and hadn't deterred murder.

Sen. Martha Bark (R., Burlington) has been having a similar struggle while considering her death-penalty vote.

She recalls how, as a child, she worried for her father's safety as she watched him leave for work as a police officer. That memory, she said, has her leaning toward supporting the death penalty.

The Senate is expected to vote on abolishing the death penalty tomorrow, and the Assembly would vote Thursday. Democrats who control the Legislature expect the bill will pass, and Gov. Corzine supports abolishing the death penalty.

While the discussion seems to be falling largely along party lines, with Democrats who control the Legislature supporting abolition and Republicans opposed, legislative leaders aren't dictating how lawmakers must vote.

"Each Republican member of the Senate will be voting his or her conscience," said Senate Minority Leader Leonard Lance (R., Hunterdon).

That has some legislators questioning long-held beliefs.

"When I first came into the Legislature, there was no doubt about it, I was a proponent of the death penalty," said Sen. Paul Sarlo (D., Bergen).

No longer.

"I understand why the death penalty has not served the people of the state well," Sarlo said, describing his coming vote as "probably one of the most difficult votes I will take."

Like Bark, Sen. Nicholas Asselta is the child of a police officer.

"I watched my father strap on a firearm onto his side and then onto his chest every day as he went to work and wondering if he would come back alive," said Asselta (R., Cumberland).

That memory, he said, shapes his support for the death penalty, a vote he said would be delivered "on behalf of my father, being a longtime police officer, and all the people in law enforcement, inside an incarceration unit and outside protecting us."