Assembly OKs measure to end N.J. executions
After more than two hours of emotional debate about justice and retribution, the Assembly yesterday gave final approval to a bill to abolish New Jersey's death penalty, sending the measure to the desk of a governor who is eager to sign it into law.
The lawmakers voted 44-36 to replace the state's never-used death penalty with life in prison without parole. The Senate passed the bill Monday. Gov. Jon Corzine said yesterday he expects to sign it in a matter of days, making New Jersey the first state to repeal its capital punishment law in more than 30 years.
"It is simply not for us to decide who should live and who should die," said Assembly Speaker Jo seph Roberts (D-Camden).
Putting the worst criminals away without chance of parole will adequately protect society, he said.
"Murderers have not been deterred in the 2,000 years the death penalty has been in effect," said Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D- Mercer). "I don't shed a tear for the people on death row. I think we are better as a society. We prove that we are above these murderers by abolishing the death penalty."
But the lawmakers who op posed the bill told of the brutal murders of children, women and police officers and argued that some criminals simply deserve to die.
"There are some crimes that are just so heinous that society demands the death penalty," said Assemblyman Sam Thompson (R- Monmouth).
When the debate ended and the votes were cast at about 4:40 p.m., 41 Democrats and three Republicans voted in favor of the bill, 29 Republicans and seven Democrats voted against it.
About 80 people gathered in the gallery to watch the Assembly debate the measure through the afternoon as darkness gathered and an icy rain fell outside the large windows that line one wall of the dimly lit chamber.
Among them was Eddie Hicks, 52, a retired Atlantic City firefighter from Galloway Township whose daughter, Jamila, was murdered seven years ago. Her killer was sen tenced to eight to 10 years in prison. Hicks is a member of New Jersey Alternatives to the Death Penalty, a group that has spent much of the past decade working to repeal the state's death penalty law.
"In my wildest dreams, I didn't think the effort would be worthwhile. It's unbelievable. A lot of hard work went into this," Hicks said.
"I do this in no means for the murderers," said Lorry Post, 76, of Mount Laurel, another member of the group. "I do this for society. We will be a better people for this."
As he watched the debate, Post carried a photo of his daughter, Lisa. She was killed by her husband as she attempted to leave him 19 years ago. The husband received a 20-year sentence for voluntary manslaughter and soon will be freed from prison.
Though most of those in the gallery were death penalty oppo nents, the families of murder victims have been sharply divided over the bill. At an Assembly committee hearing Monday, several relatives of murder victims made emotional appeals to preserve the death penalty. They included Marilyn Flax, who said her husband's killer, John Martini, boasted at his sentencing that he would never actually face execution. "How can you let John Martini's threat come true?" she asked the lawmakers.
The state Death Penalty Study Commission completed a study of all aspects of the death penalty in New Jersey in January, concluding that there is no compelling evi dence that it serves a legitimate purpose, that life in prison as a penalty for the worst crimes would sufficiently protect the public and that whatever good might be served by executing a small number of guilty persons would not jus tify the risk of executing an inno cent one.
"There are eight people on death row who are monsters. They are not going free," Assemblyman Louis D. Greenwald (D-Camden) said during the floor debate, echoing one of the commission's findings. "The question I have to ask myself before I push the button is, 'Will you let eight people live to prevent the death of one inno cent?'"
Other supporters said they be lieve New Jersey's current death penalty law does not work. It has been on the books since 1982, six years after the U.S. Supreme Court set forth the guidelines that allowed states to execute criminal defendants, but has never been carried out.
"It creates a false sense of secu rity for those who want to see jus tice done," said Assemblyman Wilf redo Caraballo (D-Essex), a primary sponsor of the measure. "And it is hurtful for families of murder victims who only want to see jus tice done."
Other opponents argued that the ineffectiveness of the New Jersey law is reason to revise it, not abolish it.
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. Hol zapfel (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.
New Jersey will become the 14th state without a death penalty if Corzine signs the bill. That seems nearly inevitable. The governor said he will not sign it immediately be cause he wants to make sure it has been "fully vetted," but he reiterated his support.
"This is an issue of conscience and the responsible administration of justice," he said. "I've opposed it from the time I first ran for the Senate. The state is taking a pain ful but necessary step."
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