HAMILTON, N.J. - Maureen Kanka wasn't going to talk yesterday.
With the New Jersey General Assembly expected to vote to abolish the state's death penalty today - less than a week after the state Senate did the same - the woman who championed Megan's Law planned to let her husband, Richard, make the family's final appeal.
Please don't strike down the death penalty, Richard Kanka said, sitting at home in the working-class Mercerville section of Hamilton, Mercer County. Please don't give cause for hope to the eight men on New Jersey's death row, especially not Jesse Timmendequas, who raped and murdered the couple's 7-year-old daughter, Megan, in 1994.
"The Kankas want him dead, put to death," Richard Kanka said. "My daughter was raped, she was strangled, she was suffocated. She was also raped post-mortem, and her body was dumped in a nearby park."
Richard Kanka wrote an emotional letter to members of the Senate and testified Monday before an Assembly committee, imploring lawmakers to retain capital punishment.
The likelihood that Timmendequas would be put to death was never great. No one has been executed in New Jersey since 1963. The state's liberal Supreme Court has overturned numerous verdicts in recent years, and narrowed the grounds on which prisoners could be put to death.
But the Senate voted 21-16 on Monday to formally replace the death penalty with life without parole.
Does he have any hope the bill to abolish the ultimate penalty will get voted down in the Assembly, where the punishment faces even more opposition?
"No," Richard Kanka said glumly. "They'd be going against their boss, Gov. Corzine. He's the one pushing for this because he's against the death penalty. He said he would never sign a death warrant."
It was then that Maureen Kanka, who had been quietly listening from the next room, could hold her tongue no longer.
If she had five minutes with the Assembly membership before today's vote, Maureen Kanka said, she would remind them that the death penalty is reserved for the few, the select, the "worst of the worst."
"I would tell them that my daughter was [Timmendequas'] third victim," she said, her eyes welling up.
"And I would remind them why they're there," she said. "They're not there to vote what they believe is right or wrong. They're they to represent their constituents."
Maureen Kanka was the force behind Megan's Law, the New Jersey legislation that requires information be made public regarding registered sex offenders. It has been copied in virtually every state. But she has not relished the job of speaking out against the abolition of the death penalty, she said.
"The death penalty is not a pleasant thing to testify about or to think about - that you're actually supporting putting someone to death," she said.
"But it is necessary because we have people out there - if you want to call them people - who are the worst of the worst in society. . . . The best thing that could be done to them is to put them out."
Maureen Kanka had hoped to someday confront Timmendequas.
"I wanted to. They wouldn't let me," she said. "Not talk
She and her family also hoped that they would have the option to witness Timmendequas being executed.
"I wanted it for me, my husband and kids," she said. "Whether I would or not when the time came, I don't know."
The proposed bill, which Corzine hopes to sign into law before the legislative session ends on Jan. 8, is intended to ensure that the state's current death-row inmates spend the rest of their lives behind bars.
After conversations with several lawyers, however, the Kankas fear that Timmendequas' sentence could revert to the only other penalty for murder in effect when he was charged in 1994: life with the possibility of parole.
"He'd be eligible for parole in 19 years," said Richard Kanka, who works as a heating and air-conditioning technician. "He has been in [for] 14 years, and you have to serve 33 to be eligible."
Concerns that death row inmates could somehow go free were also voiced yesterday by Sen. Martha W. Bark (R., Burlington), a police officer's daughter who voted Monday against repealing the death penalty.
"You never know when some governor may pardon these people and put them out on the street," said Bark, who favors capital punishment if only for cop-killers and terrorists. Not that Timmendequas isn't also worthy of death, she said.
"I would have no problem with him being executed," Bark said. "What you don't want is this guy getting out because somebody thought he'd been a good boy in prison."
As the Kankas spoke yesterday, a small, simple park was visible through the large bay window of their living room. Although the local Rotary Club bought the house where Timmendequas lived, tore it down, and replaced it with a memorial to his young victim, the lot is a constant reminder of the place where the Kankas' daughter was murdered.
They miss the little things, Richard Kanka said. He still dwells on the note Megan left him on his shaving mug, reminding him to please fix her bike.
"I kept putting it off and putting it off," he remembered.
Maureen Kanka recalls putting up Christmas lights with Megan. "That's all I've got," she said of her memories.
Sometimes, the Kankas' feelings of pain and loss subside, they said, but they always return. Two days ago, after his picture appeared in a newspaper for testifying before the Assembly, Richard Kanka was on a service call in Princeton when a man approached him.
"The guy said, 'You've been coming in here 10 years and I never knew who you were,' " Kanka said. "The guy started crying."