“Though legislatures across the country have tried to abolish capital punishment since 1976, none have succeeded. This year alone, the legislatures in Nebraska, Montana, Maryland and New Mexico have debated bills to repeal those states’ death penalties, but each measure failed, often by a slim margin.”
New Jersey Nears Repeal of Death Penalty
By Jeremy W. Peters, The New York Times
TRENTON, Dec. 10 — The New Jersey Senate voted Monday to make the state the first in the country to repeal the death penalty since 1976, when the United States Supreme Court set guidelines for the nation’s current system of capital punishment.
Approval in the Senate was seen as the biggest obstacle to the repeal, and in the end, it passed 21 to 16, receiving the bare minimum number of votes required in the 40-seat chamber. Three senators did not vote.
Legislators on both sides of the debate said they expected the measure to pass easily on Thursday in the General Assembly, where Democrats hold 50 of the 80 seats.
Gov. Jon S. Corzine, a Democrat and a staunch opponent of the death penalty, has said he would sign a measure ending executions.
“Today New Jersey can become a leader, an inspiration to other states,” Senator Robert Martin, a Republican from Morris Plains who voted for the bill, said during Monday’s debate.
For those opposed to capital punishment, New Jersey’s repeal would represent a victory that has eluded them in the modern history of the death penalty. Though legislatures across the country have tried to abolish capital punishment since 1976, none have succeeded. This year alone, the legislatures in Nebraska, Montana, Maryland and New Mexico have debated bills to repeal those states’ death penalties, but each measure failed, often by a slim margin.
So far, opponents of the death penalty have succeeded only through court rulings, including the decision in 2004 declaring New York’s capital punishment statute unconstitutional, or through moratoriums imposed by a governor, as in Illinois and Maryland.
“What New Jersey is going to do is have a legislature-initiated repeal, and that’s different,” said Frankin E. Zimring, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
Opponents of the death penalty said Monday that they hoped New Jersey’s action would give new energy to movements in states that have recently voted down repeal bills, and would serve as a catalyst for other states to revisit their laws on capital punishment.
Diann Rust-Tierney, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said: “The New Jersey Legislature did the right thing. And we think we’ll be seeing more state legislatures saying, ‘We don’t want the death penalty.’”
While the Senate vote mainly broke down along party lines, four Republicans did break from the party leadership and vote for the bill. Three of them — Mr. Martin, James J. McCullough of Atlantic County and Joseph A. Palaia of Deal — will not be returning to the Senate when the new Legislature is seated next month. Three Democrats voted against the bill.
Earlier Monday, a bill to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life in prison with no parole was approved on a 5-1 vote by the Assembly’s Law and Public Safety Committee.
Because the Senate voted during a lame-duck legislative session, legislators who might otherwise have voted against the bill were afforded some political cover — a factor that may have tipped the balance.
Mr. McCullough said Monday that he arrived at his decision over the summer after meeting with law enforcement officials and the family of a murder victim. “That’s the right thing to do,” he said. “I’m an outgoing senator.”
But opponents of the bill were sharply critical of Senate Democratic leaders for scheduling a vote during a lame-duck session, when issues of such import are seldom taken up.
“Why not let this go to the new session?” asked Senator Robert W. Singer, a Republican.
Robert Blecker, a professor at New York Law School who testified on Monday before the Assembly committee, called the process a “charade” and criticized lawmakers for not allowing for more time to debate the bill. “You’ll go where you want to go,” he said. “You’ll abolish the death penalty in New Jersey, and the world will watch.”
Since the legislative elections on Nov. 6, the process to repeal New Jersey’s death penalty has unfolded swiftly. The Senate president, Richard J. Codey, and the Assembly speaker, Joseph J. Roberts, both Democrats, placed bills abolishing capital punishment at the top of their agendas for the lame-duck session, and called for votes to be taken by the end of the year.
Supporters of the bill said the process was not rushed and pointed to a six-month-long review of the state’s capital sentence system by the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission, which found that the system was ineffective and recommended that it be replaced with life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The state has not executed anyone since 1963. In addition, its procedures for carrying out an execution were declared unconstitutional in 2004 by a state appeals court, and the Department of Corrections has said it has no intention of rewriting them.
Yet prosecutors still seek the death penalty in some cases, and eight men are currently on death row at the New Jersey State Prison here.
The measure approved by the Senate gives the eight men 60 days to file motions to be resentenced to life in prison.
Mr. Codey, who sponsored legislation in the early 1980s that reinstated New Jersey’s death penalty, said the system plays a cruel hoax on murder victims’ families by giving them the false hope of an execution.
“The best thing to do for us as a society to do is to be honest with them,” said Mr. Codey, who more recently served as governor. “Don’t tell someone that we’re going to execute somebody when the reality is it’s not going to happen — at least here in the state of New Jersey. Maybe in Texas. Maybe in other states. But it’s not going to happen here in New Jersey, and we’ve got to accept that.”
David W. Chen contributed reporting.
Published: December 11, 2007