The time has come to abolish the death penalty in New Jersey and replace it with life in prison without parole.
After years of second thoughts and consternation about capital punishment, the Legislature is poised to move repeal legislation forward. Gov. Corzine has indicated that he will sign such a measure into law.
The prospect of eliminating New Jersey's death-penalty statute has never been more favorable. Public support for a capital-punishment repeal is at an all-time high, driven in part by the exonerations of dozens of death-row inmates through DNA testing.
Meanwhile, the religious and law enforcement communities are galvanized on the issue like never before. In recent weeks, priests, ministers, rabbis, police and prosecutors have issued statements calling for an end to capital punishment.
Finally, there is bipartisan sponsorship on the repeal measures pending in the Senate and Assembly.
If New Jersey succeeds in enacting a repeal, it would become the first state in the country to legislatively abolish capital punishment.
"New Jersey is going to be a beacon on the hill," said Sister Helen Prejean, the Roman Catholic nun who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-nominated book Dead Man Walking and who has crusaded against the death penalty. "The thing is so broken, it can't be fixed."
Nearly 45 years have passed since New Jersey's last execution - Jan. 22, 1963, when Ralph J. Hudson of Atlantic City was electrocuted for the stabbing death of his estranged wife.
The law that Hudson was sentenced under was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972, along with the death-penalty statutes in every other state. It took New Jersey until 1982 to reinstate its death penalty in a manner consistent with the high court's guidelines for carrying out capital punishment fairly and consistently.
But in the 25 years that it has been in effect, New Jersey's law has been an embarrassing idle threat, a paper deterrent, the epitome of false security. It is time to end the ruse that this flawed law is salvageable. Here are the reasons:
The death penalty is not a deterrent. Statistical analysis shows that murder rates are lower in non-death-penalty states. On average, murder rates are 40 percent higher in death-penalty states. Despite having capital punishment, New Jersey continues to see its share of horrific murders, such as last summer's execution-style shooting deaths of three college students in a Newark schoolyard.
It's cheaper to lock up murderers and throw away the key. A 2005 study by the New Jersey Policy Perspective research group determined the state spent $253 million litigating the death penalty over a 23-year period. That works out to roughly $11 million a year - money that could have been better spent fighting crime and putting criminals in jail.
The consequences are irreparable if mistakes are made. DNA testing produces new death row exonerations on an almost monthly basis around the country. Overall, nationally 124 death-row inmates have been exonerated, in one case within 48 hours of a scheduled execution. In New Jersey, two men once considered for the death penalty have had their murder convictions disproved by DNA.
Capital punishment is unevenly applied. Factors such as geography, race, gender, and an individual lawyer's competency can figure into a jury's verdict. The unfairness of the death penalty's application is underscored by the most prolific murderer in New Jersey. Charles Cullen, "the killer nurse," avoided the death penalty even though he told authorities he was responsible for killing 40 patients and confessed to 13 murders.
Executions don't produce closure for victims' families. Sixty New Jerseyans who have lost a family member to murder have signed onto a letter urging the Legislature to repeal the death penalty. It is cruel to put these people through the extended ordeal of a death penalty that is illusory and not real.
What good is a law that doesn't get used? Of the 197 death-penalty-phase trials that have been held in New Jersey since 1982, death verdicts were issued in only 60 of them, and 48 of those have since been reversed for "serious error" on appeal. Four death-row inmates have died in prison, leaving only eight inmates on death row today. All the law has accomplished is an endless litany of legal appeals.
New Jersey's death penalty has been debated for a decade. Multiple commissions and committees have studied the issue from all angles - the most recent one spending nine months, holding five public hearings, and taking testimony from 70 witnesses.
The death penalty is costly, discriminatory, immoral and cruel. We need to lock up killers for life and stop pretending that the execution law protects lives and provides justice for lost lives. It's time to get New Jersey out of the execution business.