It took 31 years, but the moral bankruptcy, social imbalance, legal impracticality and ultimate futility of the death penalty has finally penetrated the consciences of lawmakers in one of the 37 states that arrogates to itself the right to execute human beings.
This week, the New Jersey Assembly and Senate passed a law abolishing the death penalty, and Gov. Jon Corzine, a staunch opponent of execution, promised to sign the measure very soon. That will make New Jersey the first state to strike the death penalty from its books since the Supreme Court set guidelines for the nation’s system of capital punishment three decades ago.
Some lawmakers voted out of principled opposition to the death penalty. Others felt that having the law on the books without enforcing it (New Jersey has had a moratorium on executions since 2006) made a mockery of their argument that it has deterrent value. Whatever the motivation of individual legislators, by forsaking a barbaric practice that grievously hurts the global reputation of the United States without advancing public safety, New Jersey has set a worthy example for the federal government, and for other states that have yet to abandon the creaky, error-prone machinery of death.
New Jersey’s decision to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole seems all the wiser coming in the middle of a month that has already seen the convictions of two people formerly on death row in other states repudiated. In one case, the defendant was found not guilty following a new trial.
The momentum to repeal capital punishment has been building in New Jersey since January, when a 13-member legislative commission recommended its abolition. The panel, which included two prosecutors, a police chief, members of the clergy and a man whose daughter was murdered in 2000, cited serious concerns about the imperfect nature of the justice system and the chance of making an irreversible mistake. The commission also concluded, quite correctly, that capital punishment is both a poor deterrent and “inconsistent with evolving standards of decency.”
By clinging to the death penalty, states keep themselves in the company of countries like Iran, North Korea and China — a disreputable pantheon of human mistreatment. Small wonder the gyrations of New Jersey’s Legislature have been watched intently by human rights activists around the world.
Spurred in large part by the large and growing body of DNA-based exonerations, there is increasing national unease about the death penalty. The Supreme Court is poised to consider whether lethal injections that torture prisoners in the process of killing them amount to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment, an exercise bound to put fresh focus on some of the ugly details of implementing capital punishment.
In a sense, the practical impact of New Jersey’s action may be largely symbolic. Although there are eight people on New Jersey’s death row, the moratorium was in place, and the state has not put anyone to death since 1963. Nevertheless, it took political courage for lawmakers to join with Governor Corzine. Their renunciation of the death penalty could prick the conscience of elected officials in other states and inspire them to muster the courage to revisit their own laws on capital punishment.
At least that is our fervent hope.
A New York Times Editorial published December 15, 2007