Sunday, December 16, 2007
DIANN RUST-TIERNEY and ESTHER BROWN
What do law enforcement officers, prosecutors, crime victims' advocates and both Democratic and Republican state legislators have in common?
Recently, all these groups came together in New Jersey to support legislation to repeal that state's death penalty. Once the legislation is signed by Gov. Jon Corzine, New Jersey will become the first state to legislatively repeal the death penalty since Iowa and West Virginia did so in 1965.
The fact New Jersey acted as it did may surprise anyone not familiar with the growing national discussion over capital punishment. But for those who are familiar with this discussion, the surprise is not that New Jersey acted as it did - but rather why other states such as Alabama have not taken steps toward a moratorium on executions while an independent commission studies the fairness of the application of the death penalty in the states.
The overwhelming and bipartisan vote to repeal New Jersey's death penalty did not happen overnight. Far from it. And a moratorium will not happen overnight in Alabama, either. What happened in New Jersey came after study, discussion and deliberation, and after hundreds and hundreds of hours of testimony from police, prosecutors, murder victims' family members and others.
In New Jersey, a special commission was appointed to thoroughly study the pros and cons of the death penalty and to recommend what measures could be taken to fix the state's death penalty statutes. The commission was made up of victims' rights advocates, county prosecutors and other members of law enforcement, a retired New Jersey Supreme Court justice and many others.
The study found there was no "fix" for the death penalty. It found it is a deeply flawed public policy and, in the words of one state senator who in 1982 voted to reinstate the death penalty in New Jersey, it is a "false and ineffective choice for taxpayers and residents who have lost loved ones. It has for too long been sustained by mythology and fiction, propped up by outdated rhetoric when courage and common sense would have served us better."
The commission further found the death penalty squanders millions of dollars in tax dollars, does not serve a legitimate purpose such as crime deterrence, delays healing for the loved ones of murder victims and, despite many safeguards, carries no guarantee against what would be our worst nightmare: the execution of an innocent person.
New Jersey is hardly the first state to begin to rethink the nation's experiment with capital punishment. Illinois and Maryland have had moratoriums. California, North Carolina and Tennessee have had study commissions. All the while, death sentences are down sharply, and executions have decreased since reaching a crescendo in the late 1990s.
In Alabama, more death sentences were handed out last year than in our neighboring states of Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana combined. While the rest of the nation put executions on hold, Alabama squandered tax dollars by setting two dates, knowing they would be stayed. At the same time, 25 Alabama murder victims' families signed letters in support of a moratorium, and Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, has committed to filing moratorium bills in the upcoming legislative session.
In Alabama and across the nation, the death penalty is under increased scrutiny, and the result of such scrutiny is that the public is beginning to arrive at an inevitable conclusion: Capital punishment is collapsing under the weight of its many blunders, biases and bureaucracies.
Blunders? At least 125 people have been freed from Death Row after evidence of their innocence emerged. Biases? Try as we might, we have yet to find a way to fairly decide who gets death and who doesn't and, at the end of the day, who is actually executed. Bureaucracies? In New Jersey, $253 million has been spent on capital punishment, 60 people have been sentenced to death, 52 death sentences have been reversed, and not one person has been executed. Across the nation, many of the 3,300 people on Death Row have sat there for decades.
In New Jersey, a panel of experts and a bipartisan group of lawmakers determined the death penalty system is beyond repair. When will Alabama come to the conclusion the time has come for a moratorium?
Diann Rust-Tierney is the executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Esther Brown is the executive director of Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty. E-mail: email@example.com