New Jersey One Step Closer to Abolition

Senators on both sides of the aisle voted 21 to 16 yesterday to repeal New Jersey’s death penalty statute, after a comprehensive study found that capital punishment wastes tax dollars, prolongs the suffering of murder victims’ family members and is likely to result in wrongful death sentences. Law enforcement officers and district attorneys from across the state supported the repeal effort.

The New Jersey General Assembly could vote as early as Thursday and is expected to support the Senate’s action on the measure. If approved in the General Assembly, it will go to the desk of Gov. Jon Corzine, who has indicated he will sign it. New Jersey would be the first state in modern U.S. history to legislatively abolish the death penalty; Iowa and West Virginia last did so in 1965.

The action in New Jersey reflects a growing national trend against the death penalty, with death sentences and executions facing a steep decline since the late 1990s and with more states advancing abolition and moratorium legislation as well as other reforms. “We have learned a lot about the death penalty in the past thirty years,” said Diann Rust-Tierney, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. “When you look closely at the facts, it just doesn’t add up to sound policy.”

Rust-Tierney noted that the New Jersey legislation advanced after murder victims’ family members, police officers and police chiefs and the New Jersey County Prosecutors Association came out firmly in support of repealing New Jersey’s death penalty statute. “Today’s vote is good common sense,” she said. “The fact is we know so much more about the death penalty than we did when New Jersey reinstated it twenty five years ago. New Jersey legislators have spent years debating and studying the death penalty. They determined that its costs, the pain it causes victims’ families and the risks it poses to innocent lives each combine to make the death penalty something we all can live without.”

Today’s vote comes less than a week after yet another innocent person was freed from death row. Last Wednesday, Michael L. McCormick of Tennessee was acquitted by a jury of his peers in a retrial after spending 15 years facing execution. McCormick is at least the 125th person freed from death row after evidence of innocence emerged.

The same problems that characterize New Jersey’s death penalty system – the fear of convicting and executing innocent people, the high costs associated with capital punishment, and its failure to offer anything of value to victims’ family members or those in law enforcement – also plague the Tennessee system and led to the creation of the study committee that is currently examining Tennessee’s death penalty.

Perhaps, in this season, where so many faiths celebrate the light of hope and appeal for “peace on earth,” we as a nation can reflect more deeply on the death penalty, moving closer to the day when we will no longer kill people who kill people to say that killing people is wrong.

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