Friday, 11 May 2007

Committee moves to ban death penalty

Committee moves to ban death penalty

Friday, May 11, 2007

Gannett State Bureau

In front of a divided audience, a contentious state Senate Judiciary Committee approved a measure that would eliminate capital punishment in New Jersey.

The bipartisan bill, passed 8-2, would replace the state's current death penalty with a sentence of life without parole.

The New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission released a report in January that said the death penalty does not meet evolving standards of decency, the legal system cannot ensure an innocent person will not be executed and the state could potentially save money if the sentence were replaced with life without parole.

Sen. Raymond Lesniak, D-Elizabeth, sponsor of the bill and a committee member, said the report showed the "death penalty in this state has failed to ensure our system of justice is effective consistently."

"The death penalty cannot be fixed; the time has come to abolish it," Lesniak said. "All the safeguards in the world cannot ensure an innocent person cannot be executed."

Currently, nine New Jersey inmates sit on death row, but no one has been executed in the state since 1963 despite being reinstated in 1982.

"Today's committee vote is simply one more reflection of the public sentiment that the death penalty has been a miserable failure and a distraction from meaningful public safety policies," said Celeste Fitzgerald, director of New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

While all the lawmakers admitted the system is not perfect, some argued the system can be reformed to ensure the accused are guilty and save the punishment only for "the most heinous crimes," said Sen. Gerald Cardinale, R-Demarest.

Cardinale said he shared people's frustrations with the system's failures, but "we do have remedies" to shore up the system.

"Hopefully rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater, we can reform the system," said Cardinale.

Reforming the system was not an option in the report, said Robert Blecker, a professor at New York Law School. Blecker, who testified before the commission last year, said the report was "tainted by abolitionists" and erred in not giving recommendations to fix the current system.

A member of the commission, West Orange Police Chief James Abbott, told the committee he voted to overturn the current law despite being for the death penalty prior to the commission. After hearing real life stories, Abbott said he learned "what sounded good in theory was actually a complete failure in practice."

As victim's families gave emotional testimony to the committee, those supporting the death penalty said they felt the committee's vote was predetermined.

Sharon Hazard Johnson, whose parents were robbed, murdered, and set ablaze in their Pleasantville home by Brian Wakefield, currently on the state's death row, asked lawmakers not to abandon the law simply because there are errors in the system.

"When a vicious person willfully and intentionally murders innocent human beings, people minding their own business, people they don't know and who don't know them, (you should) execute," said a passionate Hazard Johnson.

Some, however, argue that the death penalty, with its endless appeals, never gives victims closure.

The murderer of the mother of Bill Piper, of Pennington, is in prison for life without parole. Piper said the swift sentence gave him "near closure."

"Despite this pain . . . I am not a victim anymore, because the finality of life without parole has allowed me to grieve more normally," Piper said.

If the measure is signed into law, New Jersey would be the first state in the nation to abolish capital punishment legislatively.

The bill now heads to the full Senate for consideration. A identical measure awaits consideration by the Assembly Judiciary Committee, but no action on the legislation is scheduled, said Assembly Democratic spokesman Joe Donnelly.

Reach Michael Rispoli at

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