Banning Death Penalty Captures New Jersey Values, Governor Says

By Randy Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:06 PM EDT

( - Saying that the act captured the "highest values" of his state, New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine signed a law on Monday that made New Jersey the first state in more than 40 years to reject the death penalty.

"Today, New Jersey evolves," Corzine said during the signing ceremony. "It's a day of progress for the state of New Jersey and for the millions of people across our nation and around the globe who reject the death penalty as a moral or practical response to the grievous, even heinous, crime of murder.

"I have been moved by the passionate views on both sides of this issue, and I firmly believe that replacing the death penalty with life in prison without parole best captures our state's highest values and reflects our best efforts to search for true justice," he added.

The bill, which was introduced in November after a state commission concluded that capital punishment was an ineffective deterrent to crime, was passed last Thursday by the state Assembly on a 44-36 vote after the Senate approved it 21-16, with most Democrats voting for the measure and most Republicans voting against it.

Nevertheless, the ban "marks a new chapter in our nation's 30-year experiment with capital punishment," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), in a news release.

"New Jersey lawmakers are demonstrating sound judgment in abandoning capital punishment after learning of its costs, the pain it causes victims' families and the risks the death penalty poses to innocent lives," he stated.

To date, 124 people on death row have been exonerated, including 15 who were freed based on DNA evidence, Dieter said. As states struggle to prevent wrongful convictions in death penalty cases, they are finding the costs and time consumed by each case growing significantly, with nothing to show for it in return.

In addition, the public has "become disaffected with this failed policy," he said.

A May 2006 Gallup Poll revealed that when given a choice between the sentencing options of life without parole and the death penalty, only 47 percent of respondents chose capital punishment, the lowest percentage in two decades. Forty-eight percent said they favored life without parole.

Dieter also pointed to a number of developments across the country as part of a "growing national shift" that has led to a sharp decline in the use of capital punishment:
    New York's death penalty law was declared unconstitutional by its state Supreme Court in 2004. Since then, the last person has been removed from death row, and the legislature has repeatedly rejected all attempts to reinstate capital punishment. Illinois is in the seventh year of a death penalty moratorium, which was established in 2000 due to concerns about wrongful convictions.
    Death sentences in the United States have dropped by 60 percent since 1999. Even in Texas - where capital punishment has the most support in the U.S. - death sentences have dropped significantly during the past decade.
    Executions around the country are on hold as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to hear a case regarding the constitutionality of Kentucky's lethal injection procedure.
However, Monday's signing makes New Jersey only the 13th state to enact legislation banning capital punishment. It joins Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

The District of Columbia also has banned capital punishment. Prior to New Jersey, Iowa and West Virginia were the last states to vote to abolish executions. They did so in 1965.

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down capital punishment in 1972 and then reinstated it four years later. Since 1976, the nation has executed 1,099 people.

Cybercast News Service previously reported that the Garden State had not enforced the death penalty since 1963, and the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation contended last July that murders in New Jersey during the past 21 years totaled more than 11,000, a number that would have been lower if the state had enforced the death penalty.

The new law also commutes the sentences of eight persons in state jails to life in prison without parole, including Jesse Timmendequas, a sex offender who murdered seven-year-old Megan Kanka in 1994. That case inspired Megan's Law, which requires law enforcement agencies notify the public about convicted sex offenders living in their communities.

As a result, Monday's event was criticized by supporters of both the death penalty and victim's rights.

"I will never forget how I've been abused by a state and a governor that were supposed to protect the innocent and enforce the laws," Marilyn Flax - whose husband Irving was abducted and murdered in 1989 by death row inmate John Martini Sr. - told the Associated Press.

David Muhlhausen, senior policy analyst with the Center for Data Analysis at the conservative Heritage Foundation, told Cybercast News Service that "each state has to decide its own death penalty policy, but numerous studies show us that imposition of capital punishment actually reduces murders, anywhere from three to 18 for each execution."

"So controlling for other factors, New Jersey now can expect to have more murders," Muhlhausen said on Monday.

Regarding whether the New Jersey ban is the start of a "national shift," he noted that analysts can't be certain if the trend will hold even in the Garden State.

"In five or six years, there could be a new governor and a new state assembly, and they could change their minds and re-impose the death penalty," Muhlhausen added.

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