May 11, 2007
Yesterday the New Jersey Senate Judiciary Commiittee broadly voted to abolish the death penalty. Rather than providing my own spin or that of just one reporter I am borrowing from a few media outlets in and around New Jersey.
“Executions are rare in New Jersey, and throughout the Northeast, where four states are already among those without the death penalty. The state last put a criminal to death in 1963, and it imposed a moratorium on executions in late 2005, pending the outcome of a study.” [Reuters] The reasons why is summed up by “‘[f]ormer state attorney general and former State Supreme Court Judge Peter G. Verniero reiterated those findings in a Jan. 14 op-ed piece in The New York Times, writing: ‘Despite the law on the books, this state has never really embraced capital punishment. We should acknowledge that reality and replace the death penalty with a punishment that is real.’” [C&E]
Hudson County Prosecutor Edward DeFazio noted “Punishment has to be swift and sure. That’s not what we’re getting,” said DeFazio, who served on a commission that recommended replacing capital punishment with life without parole.
One reason for the New Jersey success is the broad support of victims families here in the Northeast & particularly New Jersey. As one victim’s family member, Bill Piper of Pennington, “said it ‘wreaked havoc’ in his family, pitting him and his wife against relatives who wanted their mother’s murderer to be capitally prosecuted. The family eventually reached an accord, he said, and the murderer was sentenced to life without parole under Pennsylvania law. ‘Life without parole works,’ Piper said. ‘It allows grief to be private, which is what it should be.’” [Star-Ledger] “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. [Asbury Park Press] “I ask that we honor my mother’s kindness by sparing others this trauma,” he said. [ABC]
“More than 50 New Jersey survivors of murder victims have submitted a letter to the state Senate Judiciary Committee urging them to pass a bill that would replace the death penalty with life without parole. Among the senders is Eileen Bennett, of Mauricetown, whose stepdaughter, Wendy Bennett McCarter, 35, was shot and killed the morning of May 25, 2006 by her husband, Scott McCarter, who also killed their two children, Scotty, 12, and Melanie, 6, before shooting himself at their home on Nabb Avenue, Millville. The letter was submitted to the state Senate Judiciary Committee as it considers S-171, legislation that would replace the death penalty with life without parole. ‘These 50 New Jersey citizens are mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, husbands and wives, all of whom had their lives ripped apart by the horrible experience of losing a family member to murder,’ Celeste Fitzgerald, program director of New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said Wednesday. ‘Some of them supported the death penalty when their loved one was killed; others opposed it.’” [Bridgeton News]
Political support for the bill & the 8-2 vote appeared strong. The sponsor of the bill, Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), argued “[t]he death penalty cannot be fixed; the time has come to abolish it. All the safeguards in the world cannot ensure an innocent person cannot be executed.” Sen. John Adler, D-Camden, the committee chairman, said the death penalty is no longer acceptable. “I don’t want New Jersey to be responsible for death,” he said. “I don’t think that soothes our soul. I think it pains our soul.” [ABC] Private accounts note the audience in attendance waslikewise overwhelmingly in favor of abolition.
A member of the commission New Jersey Death Penalty Study 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.’” [APP] “We have seen so many cases of innocent people being sent to death row, it’s just not worth taking the chance.” [Inquirer] It as a “cruel hoax” he noted. “It doesn’t work in New Jersey. It hasn’t worked in more than 30 years.” [C&E]
What next? In a press release Senator Shirley K. Turner today welcomed Senate Judiciary Committee approval of her bill to end the use of the death penalty in New Jersey and replace it with a sentence of life in prison without parole, saying that, “The Legislature can not move quickly enough to get the death penalty ban on the Governor’s desk.” “Hopefully, this bill will encourage us to move beyond the natural feelings of revenge we have when facing the murder of one of our own and allow us to focus more resources on providing relief and support to the families of the victims of these deplorable crimes,” said Senator Turner.”
Ultimately passage is “a 50-50 proposition,” Senator Lesniak said in calculating the bill’s chances . . .. “If it does pass and become law, we will hopefully influence other states. [NYT]
Full audio of the judiciary committee hearing is available here. Click on listen and then skip to around 51 minutes in.