A quarter-century after it was reinstated and without it ever being used, New Jersey's death penalty is repealed.
Gov. Jon Corzine on Monday signed legislation that eliminates capital punishment as a sentence and replaces it with life in prison without parole.
At the same time, he commuted the death sentences of the eight men presently on death row at New Jersey State Prison in Trenton to life without parole.
"These commutations, along with today's bill signing, brings to a close in New Jersey the protracted moral and practical debate on the death penalty," Corzine said at the signing ceremony.
New Jersey thus becomes the first state to legislatively repeal the death penalty since 1965 and also the first since the U.S. Supreme Court reauthorized capital punishment in 1976.
Corzine, who has been a vocal supporter of repeal, said the repeal brings to an end "state-endorsed killing," and he added: "I believe society must first determine if its endorsement of violence begets violence -- and -- if violence undermines our commitment to the sanctity of life. To these questions, I answer 'Yes,' and therefore I believe we must evolve to ending that endorsement."
He remarked that New Jersey has not executed anyone in 44 years, which he said shows "there is little collective will or appetite for our community to enforce this law and therefore the law has little deterrence value."
Citing the work of the Death Penalty Study Commission that early this year recommended repeal, Corzine said that:
¿ "loved ones of victims may be more deeply hurt by long delays and endless appeals than they would be if there were certainty of life in prison with no possibility of parole."
¿ "government cannot provide a foolproof death penalty that precludes the possibility of executing the innocent," and
¿ "it is difficult, if not impossible, to devise a humane technique of execution -- one that is not cruel and unusual."
Corzine also said it is "economic folly to expend more state resources on legal processes in an attempt to execute an inmate than keeping a criminal incarcerated for life." State officials estimate that since 1982, death penalty litigation has cost New Jersey more than $250 million above and beyond incarceration, "a significant sum that could have effectively been used in supporting and compensating victims' families," Corzine said.
Both houses of the Democrat-controlled Legislature, splitting largely along party lines, voted in favor of the repealer bill, S-171, which was fast-tracked through the waning days of the lame-duck session to ensure it passed before the term expires next month.
The Legislature repelled Republican-led efforts to add amendments that would keep capital punishment an option in cases involving murders committed during acts of terrorism or during sexual assaults on children or when the victim is a law enforcement officer.
The Legislature re-enacted the death penalty in 1982, six years after the U.S. Supreme Court resurrected capital punishment in Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976). That ruling came four years after the Court placed a moratorium on capital punishment in Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972).
But despite numerous convictions, no one has been put to death in the last 25 years, owing chiefly to the state Supreme Court's elaborate proportionality-review jurisprudence, which sought to evaluate whether death sentences have been imposed arbitrarily.
New Jersey has had its own moratorium on capital punishment in place for more than a year as lawmakers decided whether to take action to repeal. The movement began gaining momentum when the County Prosecutors Association voted to recommend eliminating capital punishment, primarily since it had never been used and because of the associated costs.
The nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services estimates that the state will save $32,480 per inmate per year if the measure is passed, in addition to the $93,018 now spent on average per death row inmate for constitutionally mandated proportionality review.
The OLS also cites defense attorney costs of $1.11 million for a capital trial, as opposed to the $386,328 spent when the death penalty is not sought; and expert fees of $731,066 for a capital trial versus $184,184 for a non-capital trial.
"We can't logically argue the deterrent factor of the death penalty when -- we never use it," said Senate President Richard Codey, D-Essex.
Assembly sponsor Wilfredo Caraballo, D-Essex, a former New Jersey Public Defender, remarked: "We have seized the moment and now join the ranks of other states and countries that view the death penalty as discriminatory, immoral and barbaric."
The chief Senate sponsor, Sen. Raymond Lesniak, D-Union, said, "It's not often we vote our conscience as a Legislature. We should do it more often."
Thirty-six states now have the death penalty as a sentencing option, and there are about 3,300 inmates on death rows across the country, according to statistics provided by the Death Penalty Information Center, an anti-capital punishment advocacy group.
Iowa and West Virginia were the last states to eliminate the death penalty legislatively, both in 1965.