N.J. Approves Abolition of Death Penalty; Corzine to Sign

New Jersey Assemblyman Christopher Bateman (R), who co-sponsored a bill to abolish the death penalty, speaks in the General Assembly on Thursday before the body voted 44 to 36 to do so.
New Jersey Assemblyman Christopher Bateman (R), who co-sponsored a bill to abolish the death penalty, speaks in the General Assembly on Thursday before the body voted 44 to 36 to do so. (By David Gard -- Associated Press)
By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 14, 2007

NEW YORK, Dec. 13 -- New Jersey lawmakers on Thursday became the first in the nation to abolish the death penalty since the Supreme Court restored it in 1976. Opponents of capital punishment hope the state's action may prompt a rethinking of the moral and practical implications of the practice in other states.

New Jersey's Democratic-controlled General Assembly voted 44 to 36 on Thursday to repeal the death penalty and replace it with life in prison without parole. The action followed a similar vote by the state Senate on Monday. Gov. Jon S. Corzine, a Democrat and a death penalty opponent, has said he will sign the legislation.

The repeal bill follows the recommendation of a state commission that reported in January that the death penalty "is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency." But equally persuasive to lawmakers was not saving lives but money -- it costs more to keep a prisoner indefinitely on death row than incarcerated for life.

The repeal movement in New Jersey gained ground this year despite solid public support in the state for capital punishment, and over the objections of death penalty supporters who accused lawmakers of rushing the issue through a lame-duck session before a new legislature is installed next year. "It's a rush to judgment" said Robert Blecker, a New York Law School professor and prominent death penalty advocate.

Richard C. Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, hailed the New Jersey vote as "a first" but noted that it "is coming at a time when there is a reexamination of the death penalty going on." Dieter added, "It does give other legislatures the chance to say, 'Is this working in our state?' "

In some states, governors have blocked executions or state supreme courts have declared effective moratoriums. Several states legislatures this year -- including in Maryland, Montana, New Mexico and Nebraska -- have debated abolishing capital punishment, but none so far has done so. Only in 2000, in New Hampshire, did the state legislature vote to repeal capital punishment, but the bill was vetoed by then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D).

The U.S. Supreme Court has effectively declared a moratorium on executions since it decided to take up in this term the question of whether lethal injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. In recent decisions, the high court has narrowed the use of capital punishment, ruling that it is unconstitutional to execute the mentally retarded or those who committed crimes as juveniles.

The New Jersey repeal comes despite the pleas of some high-profile victims, including Richard and Maureen Kanka, whose 7-year-old daughter, Megan, was killed by a repeat sex offender, Jesse K. Timmendequas, who is currently on New Jersey's death row. Megan Kanka's 1994 killing gave rise to "Megan's Law," requiring public notification when a convicted sex offender moves into a neighborhood.

Public opinion across the United States still remains solidly in favor of capital punishment, with 62 percent supporting the death penalty for murderers and 32 percent opposed, according to January polling figures from the Pew Research Center in Washington. And in New Jersey, the most recent poll this week, released by Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, showed that New Jersey residents oppose abolishing the death penalty 53 percent to 39 percent.

Where there is a discernable shift underway -- and what has partly driven the repeal in New Jersey -- is when residents are offered an alternative; the death penalty, or life in prison without parole. Given the choice, New Jersey residents backed life without parole over the death penalty, 52 percent to 39 percent.

"People want justice, not revenge," said Clay F. Richards, the Quinnipiac institute's assistant director. He said that when the concept of a life penalty without parole was first introduced some years ago, "people didn't trust it, because they saw so many murderers being paroled."

Repeal advocates also note that advances in DNA evidence have gotten scores of convicted murderers released from death row and that there were botched executions in Florida and Ohio. There has been lively debate and a slew of academic studies about the death penalty's effectiveness as a deterrent to crime. And politicians in some Northeastern states, including New York and New Jersey, have found that there is no longer much political price to pay at the ballot box by being staunchly against the death penalty.

In New Jersey, an added rationale for death penalty opponents was the simplest: It wasn't being used. The state's last execution was in 1963. New Jersey reinstated the death penalty in 1982, six years after the Supreme Court's landmark ruling that allowed states to carry it out.

The eight prisoners languishing on New Jersey's death row are straight from the headlines of some of the state's most sensational crimes of the 1990s. Besides Timmendequas, there is John Martini, who kidnapped businessman Irving Flax from his home and shot him three times in the back of the head after receiving $25,000 in ransom money. There is Brian Wakefield, who forced his way into the Atlantic City home of retiree Richard Hazard and his wife, Shirley, beat and stabbed them both and set their bodies on fire before going on a spending spree for compact discs, liquor and jewelry with the couple's stolen credit cards.

Flax's widow, Marilyn, and the Hazards' daughter, Sharon Hazard-Johnson, testified against the repeal before the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission, urging that the death penalty be implemented. "What I would like this commission to do is not change the law, but enforce the law," Marilyn Flax told the commission.

In the end, the most compelling case for New Jersey lawmakers was the economic one. Keeping inmates on death row costs the state $72,602 per year for each prisoner, according to the commission. Inmates kept in the general population cost $40,121 per year each to house. The corrections department estimates that repeal could save the state as much as $1.3 million per inmate over his lifetime -- and that figure does not include the millions spent by public defenders on inmates' appeals.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company