In a vote largely along party lines, the New Jersey State Assembly on Thursday took the final legislative step toward abolishing the death penalty in New Jersey and replacing it with life in prison without parole.
The 44-36 vote came after more than two hours of debate in which the Democratic majority rejected Republican amendments that would have kept death the penalty for murders of law enforcement officers, of minors during sex crimes and in the course of terrorist acts.
Gov. Jon Corzine has said he will sign the bill, S-171, which the Senate passed on Monday without amendment by a vote of 21-16, also along strict party lines.
New Jersey is thus poised to become the first state to eliminate capital punishment by legislation since 1965.
The move toward abolition has been gaining support in other states over the past few years as acquittals based on DNA evidence have heightened awareness that innocent defendants may be executed.
Support for the repealer has made strange bedfellows of prosecutors and moral opponents of capital punishment. Prosecutors say the lack of an enforceable penalty gives false succor to victims' families and wastes valuable resources.
Despite 60 death sentences handed down by New Jersey juries since capital punishment was restored in 1982, all but eight have been reversed on appeal.
"The death penalty is nothing more than a paper tiger, a penalty in name only," said Assembly co-sponsor Wilfredo Caraballo, D-Essex, formerly the New Jersey [ublic fefender. "Our endless system of appeals serves no justice."
Co-sponsor Christopher Bateman, R-Somerset, one of the few GOP supporters, said, "The death penalty is nothing more than a hoax on families of murder victims. It does more harm than good. It is not worth the very real risk of executing an innocent person."
Another factor mitigating in favor of repeal is financial. The nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services has estimated the state would save $32,481 per inmate per year if the measure were passed, in addition to the $93,018 now speny on average per death row inmate for proportionality review.
The OLS also cited defense attorney costs of $1.11 million for a capital trial as opposed to $386,328 where the death penalty is not sought; and expert witness fees of $731,066 for a capital trial versus $184,184 for a non-capital trial.
The County Prosecutors Association likewise says it has become too expensive to try defendants on capital charges, and the fact that no one has been executed in 25 years means the efforts are futile.
New Jersey re-enacted capital punishment in 1982, six years after the U.S. Supreme Court, in Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976), created the bifurcated system for capital trials. That decision came four years after the Court put a moratorium on capital punishment in Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972).
There already is a moratorium on capital cases following a report by a gubernatorial commission that said it should be abolished in favor of life in prison without parole.
The eight inmates on death row in Trenton will be immediately eligible for re-sentencing to life in prison once Corzine signs the bill.
On Tuesday, a Quinnipiac University poll showed that 53 percent of New Jerseyans oppose eliminating the death penalty, compared with 39 percent in favor, but that 52 percent support sentencing murder convicts to life in prison without parole, rather than death, except in the most abominable cases.