N.J. Legislature To Vote On Death Penalty Repeal

This story was written by Michelle Wu, The Daily Princetonian
New Jersey lawmakers will vote in mid-December on the issue of abolishing the death penalty. If passed, the measure would reduce the state's severest punishment to life imprisonment without parole, making New Jersey the first state to abolish the death penalty since the Supreme Court allowed states to reinstate capital punishment in 1976.

The measure has been supported by Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat, who opposes the death penalty and has said he hopes to work with the Legislature to abolish it.

The proposal comes as nationwide attention has been focused on the death penalty following a U.S. Supreme Court moratorium on death by lethal injection implemented Oct. 30, which will stay in effect until the court hands down a decision on the issue. New Jersey has had its own moratorium on lethal injections since January 2006, when the legislature appointed a commission to study the state's death penalty policy.

Princeton University sophomore David Christie, co-chair of the Princeton Justice Project's initiative opposing capital punishment, said he hopes the proposed legislation indicates that the death penalty is on its way out.

"The state has spent over a quarter of a billion of dollars on it and hasn't executed anybody," he said. "It's a huge, unnecessary waste of resources for what we believe is an antiquated and cruel punishment."

Christie and other members of his group, the Princeton Coalition Against Capital Punishment, will set up tables in Frist Campus Center in upcoming weeks to ask students -- especially those from New Jersey, who can contact their legislators and urge them to vote for the bill -- to support eliminating the death penalty.

The Garden State may already be primed for such a move. In January, the 13-member New Jersey Death Penalty Commission issued a report that concluded there is no evidence that the death penalty "rationally serves a legitimate penological intent." The report also recommended its abolition. Though the state currently has eight men on death row, the last execution in New Jersey took place in 1963 by lethal injection.

The commission's report also found that death by lethal injection -- considered more humane method than its precursors: lethal gas, the electric chair and the firing squad -- imposes a greater burden on taxpayers than life imprisonment.

Supporters of the death penalty argue that problems with how the death penalty is administered don't discredit the policy itself.

College Republicans president Jon Fernandez, a senior, said that although his group doesn't have an official stance on capital punishment, "Overall, most of our membership is in favor of it as a deterrent against repeat offenders in criminal court."

Fernandez added that he is concerned that Democrats in the state legislature have purposely timed the current bill so that many state residents won't be aware that a vote is taking place.

"They waited until the lame-duck session to make a political point," he said, "and in my political opinion the voters are entitled to know about something that's going to be a major issue."

Relatives of the victims of New Jersey's death row inmates have also opposed to the bill, but since no inmates have been executed in New Jersey for several decades, it is unclear whether keeping the death penalty technically legal in the state would have any effect.

The Death Penalty Commission's report recommended that the funds previously allocated to support the death penalty policy be used to create services for the victims' families.

Celeste Fitzgerald, program director for the Trenton-based New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, which works closely with PCACP, said she hopes a vote to abolish the death penalty in December would signal a broader ational push against the policy.

"It would be one more significant piece of evidence that Americans are rethinking capital punishment," Fitzgerald said. "Death sentences are down, executions are down, states are studying the issue. There are problems everywhere."

Christie said he doubts how much nationwide impact the December vote will have, since a large part of the argument against the death penalty in New Jersey stems from the wasted funds allocated to the unused policy.

"Unfortunately, I think New Jersey is a little independent of the other states because it hasn't executed anyone in 25 years," he said, "so the rationale here isn't necessarily going to impact other states."

Despite her strong views on the capital punishment issue, Fitzgerald cautioned students against jumping to conclusions about the controversial topic.

"I think it's important for college students, no matter what the issue, to delve a little deeper than what you read in the newspapers -- to understand nuance and that things aren't necessarily all up and down, right and wrong," she said. "Study as much as you can before drawing conclusions."

The State Assembly plans to vote on the death penalty bill on Dec. 13, while the Senate will tackle the topic before the legislative session ends on Jan. 8.
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