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Editorial | N.J.'s Death Penalty

On its way to oblivion

New Jersey has not executed anyone since 1963. So it made perfect sense when a state Senate panel last week took the first step to ensure that the death penalty is no longer even on the books.

It's time the Garden State's obvious reluctance to be executioner was codified.

The death penalty - with its attendant endless courtroom wrangling - too often has tormented victims' families rather than comforted them. Closure has been unattainable as appeals and other legal proceedings drag on.

But the answer is not to shorten the distance between conviction and lethal injection. An even more compelling case for abolishing the penalty has been made lately by DNA-based revelations in several states that prove a number of innocent people have been mistakenly sent to death rows.

In 2005, Larry Peterson of Pemberton Township, N.J., was released after DNA evidence cleared him of a murder he had steadfastly maintained he did not commit. By then, he had served 18 years of a life term. But at least he wasn't executed before the truth was known.

There is serious doubt that the system of sifting the guilty from the innocent is foolproof. One erroneous execution would be too many.

The political momentum to end the death penalty in New Jersey appears now unstoppable; a state commission has recommended it and the legislative majority and governor support it. It isn't surprising, however, that the proposal has invited not just well-considered criticism but also demagoguery.

In the latter category we find State Sen. Nicholas Asselta, a Cumberland County Republican, who has creatively lumped the effort to abolish the death penalty with support for gay marriage and needle-exchange programs - all political sins in his view that he attributes to the majority Democrats.

Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R., Bergen) and other Republicans pounced on last week's arrests of suspects in a Fort Dix plot to raise the bogey that convicted terrorists in New Jersey would escape the death penalty.

But terrorist cases likely will be a federal responsibility - the FBI, not local police, arrested the Fort Dix suspects - and there is a federal death penalty. In any case, there's a reassessment of the death penalty under way across the country, and the federal penalty should not be exempt from that scrutiny.

Despite the sniping, there is bipartisan support for the death penalty ban in both the New Jersey Senate and Assembly. Republican committee members are among the prime sponsors, along with Democrats, in both houses.

That's as it should be on an issue of individual conscience.