Rejoining the Civilized World
December 14, 2007
This part of the country is about to become a little more civilized. New Jersey is on track to become the first state to outlaw the death penalty since the current framework for capital punishment was established by the Supreme Court in 1976:
Several state legislatures have tried to overturn their death penalties since 1976, when the United States Supreme Court set the framework for the current system of capital punishment. And while executions have come to a halt by other means — through a moratorium, for example, issued by the governor of Illinois, and a court ruling declaring New York’s penalty unconstitutional — no state legislature has ever flatly outlawed the death penalty.
Once the governor signs the bill, the New Jersey Department of Corrections will begin deciding what to do with the eight men on death row in the New Jersey State Prison here. Under the bill, inmates sentenced to death have 60 days to petition their sentencing courts to commute their sentences to life in prison with no possibility of parole. They also must agree to forego their rights to any further appeals.
If they do not petition the court, their death sentences remain in place. But since the state’s capital punishment statute will be repealed, their sentences will be effectively equivalent to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The vote didn’t break completely along party lines: a handful of Republicans supported the move, and several Democrats voted against it. That some Republicans wish the rejoin the civilized world is encouraging and laudable, but it doesn’t change the fact that the death penalty is a signature issue for the GOP — one of the cheap cuts of wormy red meat it regularly feeds to its base. Consistent with that stance, a couple of Republican assemblymen seemed to take the line that New Jersey needs to retool its court system into a Texas-style death-sentence factory:
Assemblyman Kevin J. O’Toole (R-Passaic) said there have been 228 capital punishment trials in New Jersey since 1982. Sixty of the defendants were sentenced to death, O’Toole said, but 52 of them had the penalty overturned by the courts.
“You say do away with it. I say fix it,” O’Toole said. “That’s our job.”
Assemblyman James W. Holzapfel (R-Ocean), who spent six years as Ocean County prosecutor, argued that a law calling for life without parole offers no guarantee that the courts will not decide to parole a killer after 30 or 40 years in prison.
“We sit in a state with 8.1 million people and eight people sit on death row. Why? The courts have not enforced the law,” he said.
Abolishing the death penalty is the best way to fix it. I used to support capital punishment. But after seeing decades of research — along with some personal insights derived from watching a few murder trials up close — I had to conclude that the evidence is clear. The death penalty is not a deterrent to murder. It is applied unfairly and, with disturbing frequency, unjustly. Its continued use in other states is a stain on American society.
As further evidence of the Republican capacity for fantasy-based policymaking, Assemblyman Michael Carroll (R-Wingnuttia) cited The Lord of the Rings as part of his argument for keeping the death penalty. Ah yes, the intellectual rigor of death-penalty proponents.