N.J. latest to try death-penalty repeal

 

New Jersey lawmakers are speeding ahead on a plan to make the Garden State the first in the nation to repeal the death penalty since it was reinstated more than 30 years ago, capping a year in which similar efforts gained traction across the country.

The New Jersey Senate on Monday (Dec. 10) approved a bill that would replace capital punishment with a criminal sentence of life without parole, and the state Assembly - the lower house - is expected to vote on identical legislation on Thursday (Dec. 13). Leaders of the Democratic Legislature have put the repeal on a fast track in recent weeks and Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine said he will sign the bill if it reaches his desk.

Critics of the repeal say political calculations are driving its supporters in the New Jersey statehouse to rush the legislation. They say members of the year-round Legislature, whose 120 seats were up for election on Nov. 6, are trying to win passage of a controversial bill while they have little accountability to voters. The next legislative elections are nearly two years away, and candidates who won last month - and may oppose a repeal of the death penalty - won't be sworn in until January.

But supporters say a repeal is long overdue, citing a January report by a governor's commission that found the state's death penalty to be ineffective, "inconsistent with evolving standards of decency" and - because of lengthy appeals to death sentences - more expensive than life in prison without parole. New Jersey has not executed a single prisoner since it reinstated the death penalty in 1982.

New Jersey's push to eliminate the death penalty mirrors efforts in a politically diverse group of states this year, including Maryland, Montana, Nebraska and New Mexico, where new faces and changing attitudes in the statehouse and beyond are credited with propelling repeal bills further than in recent years.

In Maryland , for instance, Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Catholic who opposes the death penalty and who replaced a Republican death-penalty supporter in the governor's mansion, lent new momentum to repeal efforts when he took the rare step of testifying against capital punishment before a General Assembly committee in February, a month after being inaugurated.

A repeal bill later failed in committee by a single vote, when another Catholic, Republican state Sen. Alex X. Mooney, elected to keep the death penalty, though he acknowledged being conflicted about the decision.

In traditionally Republican Nebraska, a bill to repeal the death penalty this year came one vote short of clearing the single-chamber, non-partisan Legislature for the first time since 1979, when identical legislation was vetoed by then-Gov. Charley Thone (R). Both the earlier bill and this year's were sponsored by state Sen. Ernie Chambers, Nebraska 's longest-serving lawmaker and its most outspoken opponent of capital punishment.

DeMaris Johnson, executive director of the Nebraska County Attorneys Association , which does not take positions on the death penalty, said newly enacted term limits in the Legislature significantly changed the political atmosphere in Lincoln, resulting in more lawmakers siding with Chambers as he fights capital punishment.

Nebraska is the only state that uses the electric chair as its sole method of execution.

Bills to repeal the death penalty this year also cleared the New Mexico House of Representatives and the Montana Senate, but failed in the opposite chamber in each state.

"These are not New England states, where you might expect the death penalty to be not as popular," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center , which advocates against capital punishment.

The relative success of repeal bills this year comes despite public polling that has consistently shown that two out of three Americans support the death penalty for those convicted of murder, though that number has decreased from a high of 80 percent in 1994, according to studies by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which, like Stateline.org , is part of the Pew Research Center .

In 2006, 53 percent of voters in Wisconsin - one of 12 states without capital punishment - approved reinstating the death penalty for cases in which DNA evidence proves multiple counts of first-degree murder. Despite the ballot initiative, which was non-binding, lawmakers in the split-control Legislature have not moved ahead with the proposal.

Across the nation, the number of people sentenced to death has dropped. In 2005, the latest reported year, 128 people were sentenced to death - the lowest total since capital punishment was reinstated, according to a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In 1996, by comparison, 317 people were sentenced to death.

Underscoring the debate over capital punishment this year has been a U.S. Supreme Court case in which the most common method of executing prisoners - lethal injection - is being challenged. In the case, Baze v. Rees , two Kentucky prisoners say the lethal injection procedure, used by 36 of the 38 states with capital punishment, inflicts illegal cruel and unusual punishment.

Until the high court decides the case, all lethal injections effectively have been placed on hold, putting 2007 on track to have the fewest executions - 42 - of any year since 1994.

 
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