NJ Senators Push to Repeal Death Penalty Even in Cases of Terrorism

By Jeff McKay | July 7, 2008 | 8:23 PM EDT

Trenton, New Jersey (CNSNews.com) - Just days after New Jersey authorities announced the arrest of six men suspected of plotting a terror attack against a military base in the state, two state Democratic lawmakers are pushing a bill to abolish the state's death penalty - even in the most serious cases of terrorism, murder and rape.

A state Senate panel was meeting Thursday to debate replacing the state's death penalty with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

"Terrorists want to be martyrs. Let's not give them another reason to commit heinous acts by singling them out for the death penalty," said state Sen. Ray Lesniak, introducing legislation, which the Union County Democrat said "will ensure that the system of justice administered by our state is effective, consistent and just."

If passed, the measure would "allow for life imprisonment without eligibility for parole and to eliminate the death penalty."

"The frequency of murders makes it obvious that the death penalty simply doesn't work as a deterrent," said state Sen. Shirley Turner, whose district includes Trenton, the state capital which has had serious problems with gang violence and murders in recent years.

"The risks of executing innocent people and the costs of maintaining the necessary support systems for capital punishment far outweigh any benefits it brings to our society," Turner said in a statement.

Democrats hold a majority control of both houses of the New Jersey legislature, and the death penalty debate seems to be falling along party lines.

"I plan to offer amendments to the legislation that would retain the death penalty in cases of terrorism, murders of law enforcement officers, and murders committed during sex crimes," said Republican state Sen. Joe Kyrillos.

"Tuesday's foiling of a terrorist cell where six men were arrested on charges they plotted to attack the Fort Dix Army base and 'kill as many soldiers as possible' is a chilling reminder that we live in dangerous times," he said in a statement.

"A bill to end the death penalty in New Jersey would have the effect of letting terrorists live in prison while the people they kill remain dead," Kyrillos added.

"Now that we have confirmation that terrorists are actively operating in New Jersey we must retain the option of the ultimate punishment for those who conspire to commit mass murder as well as cop killers and child sex fiends," said another Republican senator, Gerald Cardinale.

In the State Assembly, Republican Michael Doherty, an Army veteran, voiced outrage at the timing of the proposed death penalty repeal.

"Make no mistake about it, we are living in perilous times when terrorist threats such as these will continue to increase around our nation and right here in our own backyard," he said. "It would be outrageously irresponsible for this legislature to even consider repealing the state's death penalty at this time."

In June 2002, in response to the 9/11 attacks, the New Jersey legislature passed an antiterrorism law stating that terrorism must be considered an aggravating factor when a jury in a murder case determines whether the death penalty should be imposed. More than 600 residents of the state died on 9/11.

That statute would be voided if the state's death penalty is repealed.

According to a 133-page report by a commission investigating capital punishment in the state, "there is no compelling evidence that the New Jersey death penalty rationally serves a legitimate penological intent."

"There is increasing evidence that the death penalty is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency," concluded the report, set up by then acting governor, Richard Codey.

Democratic leaders in the state legislature and Governor Jon Corzine are backing the death penalty repeal.

During the Senate hearings in Trenton on Thursday, Marilyn Flax voiced outrage at the stance of supporters of the repeal. John Martini, who murdered Flax's husband in 1989, is sitting on New Jersey's death row.

"He killed at least five others before he took my husband's life," she said of Martini. "I've listened to the debate on the cost factor. How dare you put a dollar amount on justice?"

Martini kidnapped and then shot dead Irving Flax. When apprehended, he boasted about killing others, although he was only found guilty in the Flax murder.

"The death penalty kills guilty murderers. If the death penalty is broken fix it, don't get rid of it," said an angry Sharon Hazard-Johnson, whose parents were killed by death row inmate Brian Wakefield.

"When a vicious person willfully kills someone, execute them," she told the panel. "Don't continue to put people like us through this."

On Monday this week, the New Jersey State Supreme Court upheld the death penalty in the case of Wakefield, who was found guilty of beating, stabbing, and setting on fire the elderly retired couple while robbing their home in 2001.

Statistics from 2005 show Newark, Camden, and Trenton were rated as three of the 14 cities in the nation with the highest murder rates per 100,000 residents.

Despite having 455 "death-eligible" defendants since the death penalty was enacted in 1982, New Jersey has not executed anyone since 1963.

Make media inquiries or request an interview about this article.

Subscribe to the free CNSNews.com daily E-Brief.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.