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Capital punishment; the death penalty

Abolition of the death penalty in New Jersey:
2007-DEC: The first state to do so in forty years

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Sponsored link.

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The last person executed in New Jersey was killed in 1963. The U.S. Supreme Court re-authorized the execution of convicted murderers in 1976. In 1982, the state reauthorized the death penalty. Since then, over four dozen people have been sentenced to death; none have been executed. The vast majority of death sentences were overturned on appeal.

In 2004, the state appeals court ruled that the state's procedures for executing people by lethal injection could be cruel and unusual punishment, and thus were unconstitutional. The state revised its procedures so that it could resume executions.

The New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission was created to study all aspects of the death penalty and to report their findings to the Governor and Legislature. The issued their report on 2007-JAN-02, recommending that the death penalty be abolished in the state. 1

Although the New Jersey public strongly supports the death penalty, a bill was drafted to abolish executions in favor of life imprisonment with no chance for parole.

A bill to abolish the death penalty passed the Senate and General Assembly during 2007-DEC. The vast majority of Democrats voted in favor; most Republicans voted against it.

New Jersey Governor Jon S. Corzine (D) signed the bill into law on 2007-DEC-17. 2 New Jersey became the first U.S. state to abolish the death penalty in 40 years.

By coincidence, the United Nations passed a non-binding resolution on the next day calling for a worldwide moratorium of the death penalty. 3

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The death penalty statute in New Jersey as of 2007-JAN:

Section "2C:11-3. Murder" required that a person convicted of first degree murder receive a sentence of at least 30 years to life with no possibility of parole for 30 years. Life imprisonment or the death penalty was required, if there were aggravating factors involved in the crime that overbalanced any mitigating factors.

Aggravating factors included:

bulletCreating "...a grave risk of death to another person in addition to the victim."
bulletThe murder "...involved torture, depravity of mind, or an aggravated assault to the victim."
bulletThe murderer was a contract killer who murdered for profit.
bulletThe murder was committed to escape detection, arrest, trial, etc.
bulletThe murder was committed during a serious crime.
bulletThe victim was a public servant on duty.
bulletThe victim was murdered because he was a public servant.
bulletThe murderer was a leader of a narcotics trafficking network who ordered the killing.
bulletThe victim was less than 14 years of age.
bulletThe murder was committed during a terrorist act.

A separate sentencing proceeding was held to weigh any aggravating factors and any mitigating factors and decide whether adult murderers should receive the death penalty.

All convictions resulting in a death sentence were automatically appealed to the state Supreme Court. 4

Curiously, the statute has no exclusions. Yet the state hires people to engage in contract murder of prisoners on death row. If the statute were strictly followed, these employees would themselves be guilty of premeditated, first degree murder with a major aggravating factor -- money. Yet they are never prosecuted.

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The New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission:

This Commission was created on 2006-JAN-12 when Governor Richard J. Codey signed into law P.L.2005, c.321. The group was charged with studying all aspects of the death penalty in the state and to report their findings to the Governor and Legislature, along with legislation that they recommended for adoption by the state.

The Rev. M. William Howard, Jr. of Bethany Baptist Church in Newark, NJ was selected chairperson.

The rest of the committee consisted of:

bulletEddie Hicks, a member of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation;
bulletKathleen Garcia, a member of the New Jersey Crime Victims' Law Center;
bulletRabbi Robert Scheinberg of the United Synagogue of Hoboken;
bulletThe Honorable James H. Coleman, Jr., a retired justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court;
bulletThe Honorable John F. Russo, former President of the New Jersey State Senate;
bulletJames P. Abbott, West Orange Police Chief;
bulletKevin Haverty, an attorney in private practice; and
bulletOcean County Prosecutor Thomas F. Kelaher.

The ex officio members of the Commission were:

bulletYvonne Smith Segars, Public Defender
bulletVarious Attorneys General or their designee;
bulletMiles S. Winder, III who was selected by the President of the New Jersey State Bar Association; and
bulletEdward J. De Fazio, Hudson County Prosecutor who represented the County Prosecutors Association of New Jersey.

The committee issued their report on 2007-JAN-02. 1 They determined that:

  1. "There is no compelling evidence that the New Jersey death penalty rationally serves a legitimate penological intent.
  2. The costs of the death penalty are greater than the costs of life in prison without parole, but it is not possible to measure these costs with any degree of precision.
  3. There is increasing evidence that the death penalty is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency.
  4. The available data do not support a finding of invidious racial bias in the application of the death penalty in New Jersey.
  5. Abolition of the death penalty will eliminate the risk of disproportionality in capital sentencing.
  6. The penological interest in executing a small number of persons guilty of murder is not sufficiently compelling to justify the risk of making an irreversible mistake.
  7. The alternative of life imprisonment in a maximum security institution without the possibility of parole would sufficiently ensure public safety and address other legitimate social and penological interests, including the interests of the families of murder victims.
  8. Sufficient funds should be dedicated to ensure adequate services and advocacy for the families of murder victims." 5

The Commission recommended:

"... that the death penalty in New Jersey be abolished and replaced with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, to be served in a maximum security facility. The Commission also recommends that any cost savings resulting from the abolition of the death penalty be used for benefits and services for survivors of victims of homicide." 6

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A bill to end executions:

Leaders of the Senate and General Assembly decided after the November elections to process the bill before year end. It took less than two weeks for the bill to pass the Senate and General Assembly.

On 2007-DEC-03, the Senate Budget Committee approved the death penalty abolition bill by a vote of 8 to 4.

On DEC-09, the Senate passed the bill 21 to 16 with three abstentions. This is the minimum number required to pass. Four Republicans voted for the bill; three Democrats voted against it. The rest voted according to party lines. 8

bulletSenator Robert Martin, one of the few Republicans to vote in favor of the bill said: "Today New Jersey can become a leader, an inspiration to other states."
bulletDiann 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'."
bulletThe Senate president, Richard J. Codey, said that said the death penalty law on the books plays a cruel hoax on murder victims’ families by giving them the false hope of an execution. He said:

"The best thing to do for us as a society to do is to be honest with them. 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." 7

Also on DEC-09, the General Assembly’s Law and Public Safety Committee approved the bill by a 5-1 vote.

On 2007-DEC-12, the General Assembly voted 44 to 36 in favor of the bill. Three Republicans voted in favor of the bill; 9 Democrats voted against it. 8 The Washington Post speculated that a major factor in the bill's passage was that it costs more to keep a prisoner indefinitely on death row than incarcerated for life.

Death penalty supporters criticized the Legislature for rushing the bill before a new legislature is installed in early 2008. Robert Blecker, a New York Law School professor and death penalty advocate said "It's a rush to judgment." But Richared C. Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington DC commented that it:

"... is coming at a time when there is a reexamination of the death penalty going on. It does give other legislatures the chance to say: 'Is this working in our state'?" 7

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Governor Corzine signed the bill into law:

Governor Jon S. Corzine signed the measure into law on 2007-DEC-17. He also issued an order commuting the death sentences of the eight men on New Jersey's death row to life imprisonment with no possibility of parole. He said that this law could be a model to other states to end:

"... state-endorsed killing. ... Today New Jersey is truly evolving. I believe society first must determine if its endorsement of violence begets violence, and if violence undermines our commitment to the sanctity of life. To these questions, I answer yes." 7

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  1. "New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission Report," 2007-JAN, at: http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/ This is a PDF file. Software to read these files can be obtained free from:
  2. Tom Hester, Jr., "Some Decry N.J. Death Penalty Abolition," Associated Press, 2007-DEC-18, at: http://ap.google.com/
  3. "UN General Assembly passes worldwide death penalty moratorium," Jurist Legal News & Research, 2007-DEC-18, at: http://jurist.law.pitt.edu/
  4. Op Cit, report: Pages 121 to 125.
  5. Ibid, Page 1.
  6. Ibid, Page 2.
  7. Jeremy W. Peters, "Death Penalty Repealed in New Jersey," New York times, 2007-DEC-17, at: http://www.nytimes.com/
  8. "Death penalty: NJ Senate and Assembly roll call," NewsDay.com, 2007-DEC-13, at: http://www.newsday.com/
  9. "NJ Senate budget committee approves death penalty abolition!" Amnesty International USA, 2007-DEC-03, at: http://blogs.amnestyusa.org/

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Navigation: Home page > "Hot" religious topics > Death Penalty > this essay

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Copyright © 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2007-DEC-26
Latest update: 2007-DEC-26
Author: B.A. Robinson

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