Friday, 11 May 2007
May 9, 2007
Repeal of Death Penalty Moves Ahead Tomorrow
Carl Barbati, Campaigns and Elections Magazine
"To be or not to be." Or, to be more precise: "To execute or not to
That is the question on the table in Trenton tomorrow, May 10.
Hearing Room No. 4 in the Statehouse Annex will take on Shakespearian tones
as the Senate Judiciary Committee moves ahead with the next legislative step
toward eliminating the death penalty in New Jersey.
Some Republicans and some victims' rights advocates will speak against the
proposed abolishment, but Senate Bill S171 seems bound for passage.
Momentum has built steadily since a 13-person bipartisan commission
delivered its report in January, urging legislators to repeal capital
punishment and replace it with life sentences without parole.
A spokeswoman for Senate President Richard J. Codey, D-Essex, said he
supported the commission's conclusions and expected to pass legislation next
Gov. Jon Corzine is onboard, as well.
"As someone who has long opposed the death penalty, I look forward to
working with the legislature to implement the recommendations outlined in
the report," he said in a statement issued by his office.
The 100-plus page report of the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission
found "no compelling evidence that the New Jersey death penalty rationally
serves a legitimate penological intent" and that the "interest in executing
a small number of persons guilty of murder is not sufficiently compelling to
justify the risk of making an irreversible mistake."
Even former death penalty advocates have changed their minds in recent
years, mostly for practical purposes.
Some, like West Orange Police Chief James Abbott, who served on the
commission, believe that keeping capital punishment on the books is actually
a "cruel hoax" on murder victims' families since the state hasn't actually
executed anyone since 1963.
"It doesn't work in New Jersey," he said. "It hasn't worked in more than 30
"The governor and too many judges don't believe in the death penalty. It's
not going to happen. It always gets overturned eventually. It should be
replaced with something where the family of the victims know that the
murderer is getting the maximum possible punishment. The family shouldn't
have to relive trial after trial after trial just to see the killer not
Abbott said his main concern is closure for the family of murder victims,
and he feels that having a jury deliver a death sentence that will never be
carried out only prolongs the family's suffering.
"The families were led to believe the murderer of their loved one would be
executed and then it just doesn't happen," Abbott said.
Former Assemblyman Joseph L. Bocchini Jr. voted in favor of the re-written
death penalty in 1982, but today, as the Mercer County prosecutor, he says
it "has become a waste of time and money."
The Study Commission reached much the same conclusion, finding that New
Jersey's death penalty costs taxpayers more than paying for prisoners to
serve life terms, and finding that there was no evidence the death penalty
The commission's report also said "there is increasing evidence that the
death penalty is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency."
Former 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."
"The death penalty simply doesn't work as a deterrent, and the risks and
costs involved far outweigh any benefits it may bring to our society," said
Sen. Shirley Turner (D-15), who sponsored a similar bill for abolishment.
"The fact is, there is no way to guarantee that an innocent man or woman
would not be wrongly executed. As a society, we cannot risk the lives of the
innocent to exact punishment on those who are guilty."
The state has nine people on death row but has not executed anyone since
1963. A death penalty moratorium was imposed in late 2005, when the law
creating the commission was passed.
Democratic Senator Raymond Lesniak and Republican Senator Robert Martin
sponsored the currently proposed legislation, which emerged from the Study
The identical Assembly bill, A3716, also had bipartisan sponsorship from
Democrat Wilfredo Caraballo and Republican Christopher Bateman.
But, some Republicans say they will fight the legislation.
"It is beyond reprehensible that they are even proposing that cop killers,
child rapists and murderers and terrorists will not face the ultimate
punishment if they commit their crimes in New Jersey," said Sen. Nicholas
And, some family members of murder victims have decried the report's
findings and will likely testify at legislative hearings.
In earlier testimony before the Study Commission, Marilyn Flax recalled
phone conversations with John Martini Sr., who was convicted in 1991 of
kidnapping her husband, Fair Lawn warehouse manager Irving Flax, and killing
him after getting $25,000 of a $100,000 ransom.
"The last words I heard from my husband, in a piercing, screaming voice,
were 'Give him the money, or he'll kill me.'" she said.
She said allowing Martini to live would be an insult.
Another vocal opponent of abolishing the death penalty is a nationally
prominent Mercer County resident responsible for "Megan's Law" legislations
across the U.S.
"I just think it's a shame that people are going to have to pay year after
year to keep to keep these people in prison," said Maureen Kanka, who led a
national movement for communities to be notified when sex offenders move
nearby after her 7-year-old daughter Megan was murdered by a sex offender in
Dr. Martin Saari, a psychologist in Montclair and instructor at Seton Hall
University and elsewhere, said victims' families have a right to closure
after a loved one is murdered, but he was unsure if a death penalty helped
or hurt victims' families if everyone knew the sentence would never be
"With zero executions since 1963, victims' families in New Jersey can have
no expectations that a death sentence will actually produce an execution.
"If death sentences were actually carried out, then that might help at least
some people find closure. But knowing that it will never happen could leave
families in limbo for years and years.
Turner said money saved by abolishing the death penalty should go toward
strengthening programs to help victims' families.
The proposed legislation, scheduled to go before the committee tomorrow,
would repeal the death penalty and replace it with life imprisonment with no
eligibility for parole. Current death-row inmates would be resentenced to
life imprisonment without parole in a maximum security prison.
If lawmakers and Corzine implement the commission's recommendation, New
Jersey would become the 13th state without a death penalty. New Jersey was
the third state to impose a death-penalty moratorium to study the issue,
behind Maryland and Illinois.
"New Jersey has moved beyond the need for punishments based on revenge
rather than justice," Turner said. "We are a decent, compassionate people
who would rather see the most heinous criminals locked up for eternity than
Court Upholds Death Sentence
On Monday, a divided state Supreme Court upheld the death sentence for a man
who pleaded guilty to murdering a retired Pleasantville couple while robbing
their home in 2001.
Brian P. Wakefield, who admitted to stabbing, beating and then setting his
victims afire before going on a shopping spree with their money, argued in
his appeal that he was sentenced to death because prosecutors were allowed
to provide inflammatory evidence to the jury. He argued that his guilty plea
made such evidence unneeded.
The majority of the court rejected his arguments, ruling that presenting the
jury with Wakefield's statements to police was relevant because it could
show whether the murders were intentional - one of the aggravating factors
that a death penalty jury must consider.
Aggravating factors must outweigh mitigating factors to reach a death
penalty verdict. In Wakefield's death penalty trial, his attorneys argued
that his upbringing in a home rife with domestic violence, drug abuse and
criminal behavior scarred him permanently.
Wakefield, 29, is years away from any possible execution and has several
avenues for appeals remaining. He remains on New Jersey's death row with
eight other men at New Jersey State Prison in Trenton.
Justice Roberto Rivera-Soto wrote the 4-2 ruling was and Chief Justice James
R. Zazzali and Justice Jaynee LaVecchia joined him. Justice Barry T. Albin
filed a separate concurring opinion.
Justices Virginia A. Long and John W. Wallace filed separate dissenting
In dissent, Long found that the death penalty verdict should be vacated
because other killers who had committed similar crimes got life sentences.
"Wakefield's crimes, execrable as they were, were in fact not 'worse' than
those of his comparators and the personal stories of those in his group were
not 'better' than his," Long wrote.
Long also questioned if it was time for the state's highest court to
reconsider the constitutionality of the death penalty. Noting that court
approval two decades ago hinged on "evolving standards of decency," Long
pointed to eroding support for the sanction in polls, and recent findings by