Friday, 14 December 2007

N.J. passes bill to ban executions

Nationwide effect on Death Rows unclear

By Steve Mills, Tribune staff reporter Tribune news services contributed to this report
December 14, 2007

New Jersey on Thursday took a major step toward becoming the first state since 1965 to ban executions as the state Assembly voted to abolish the death penalty in favor of life without parole.

The bill, which Gov. Jon Corzine said he would sign within a week, would spare the eight men on the state's sparsely populated Death Row; their death sentences would be changed.

But the effect on Death Rows across the country is less certain. While the move is historic, New Jersey's Death Row is tiny compared to those of such busy death penalty states as Texas or Virginia, or those states with large Death Row populations, such as California or Florida.

Instead, it may prompt states with small Death Rows that rarely carry out executions -- and that have considered similar legislation -- to take the step and also ban capital punishment.

"It's highly unlikely that active death penalty states ... will follow the lead of New Jersey any time soon," said David Dow, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center who also represents Death Row inmates. "I don't think this is the beginning of legislative abolition. It may be the beginning of the beginning of legislative reconsideration."

Indeed, as the death penalty debate has changed over the last decade, fueled by a growing number of Death Row and DNA exonerations and media investigations that have suggested innocent people have been executed, many states have reconsidered their death penalty laws. Illinois declared a moratorium in 2000, while several other states have conducted extensive studies of their death penalty laws.

Some state legislatures have had close votes on abolition, according to Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes the death penalty.

Bills in Montana and New Mexico passed one house of the state legislature but not the second. In Nebraska, supporters came within one vote of enacting an abolition law. A Colorado legislative committee passed a bill, but it failed to get out of either house, according to Dieter.

"A lot of states have considered this," Dieter said. "It didn't occur in a vacuum that all of a sudden they decided to abolish the death penalty. There is a growing level of reconsideration."

A byproduct of New Jersey's move, particularly in states with small Death Row populations or states that rarely carry out executions, may be the growing isolation of the states with busy death chambers, such as Oklahoma, Virginia and the nation's leading executioner, Texas.

"It may not become obsolete," said Dieter, "but even states such as Texas that keep it may well be faced with the prospect that they'll be out of step with the rest of the country."

Already, the growing unease over the death penalty has led to fewer executions and death sentences. Along with a rising number of exonerations, the U.S. Supreme Court in recent years has banned executions of the mentally retarded and juveniles. The court has also taken up a case that raises questions about the country's execution method, lethal injection.

The nation's last execution was Sept. 25 in Texas. Since then, executions have been halted while the Supreme Court considers the lethal injection case. A decision is expected next year.

The U.S. has put to death 1,099 people since the Supreme Court reauthorized the death penalty in 1976. In 1999, 98 people were executed, the most since 1976; last year, 53 people were executed, the lowest since 1996.

Iowa and West Virginia halted executions in 1965.

Joshua Marquis, an Oregon prosecutor and vice president with the National District Attorneys Association, said the move in New Jersey would not be so momentous for the national death penalty debate.

And he noted that last year, a majority of Wisconsin residents approved an advisory referendum to bring the death penalty back to that state.

"New Jersey wasn't enthusiastically putting people to death in the first place," he said. "I don't see this as some kind of a sea change."

New Jersey's legislation followed the work of a special state commission that earlier this year found that the death penalty was a more expensive sentence than life in prison, had not been effective as a deterrent to murder and carried the risk of executing an innocent person.

The New Jersey Senate approved the bill on Monday. The state Assembly's approval came on Thursday in a 44-36 vote. Corzine, a Democrat, has pledged he would sign the bill.

"It's time New Jersey got out of the execution business," said Assemblyman Wilfredo Caraballo, a Democrat who supported the legislation. "Capital punishment is costly, discriminatory, immoral and barbaric. We're a better state than one that puts people to death."

Senate Republicans had sought to retain the death penalty for those who murder law-enforcement officials, rape and murder children, and for terrorists, but the Senate rejected the idea.

Democrats control New Jersey's Legislature.

Among the Death Row inmates who would be spared is Jesse Timmendequas, a sex offender convicted of murdering 7-year-old Megan Kanka in 1994.

That case sparked Megan's Law, which requires law-enforcement agencies to notify the public about convicted sex offenders living in their communities. Megan's parents had urged the New Jersey Legislature not to strike down the death penalty.

"The key fact," said Dow, who has handled numerous cases and written a book about capital punishment, "is that New Jersey is a state that has had a death penalty law but hasn't been active."

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