An Eye for an Eye Leaves Everybody Blind (at least in New Jersey)
Martin Luther King, Jr., once said that "violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys a community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends by defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers."
It is fitting, then, that two weeks before our nation commemorated Dr. King's birthday, the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission (created in 2006 by the New Jersey legislature) recommended to Governor Corzine and the state legislature that the death penalty be abolished. If adopted, New Jersey would become the 13th state without a death penalty and the first to abolish it since its reinstatement in 1976. Between 1976 and today, over 1,000 people have been executed in the United States.
The Commission cited numerous concerns surrounding the moral, economic, and penal failures of the death penalty, issues that abolitionists have long been publicizing. Specifically, the Commission made the following findings:
1) There is no compelling evidence that the death penalty rationally serves a legitimate penal interest. As support, the Committee noted that most states rarely execute people, the published studies on the deterrent effect of the death penalty are "conflicting and inconclusive", and states without the death penalty have far lower murder rates than those that do.
2) The costs of the death penalty are greater than the costs of life in prison without parole. The Office of the Public Defender estimated that elimination of the death penalty would result in an annual cost savings of $1.46 million, while the Department of Corrections estimated that it would result in an annual cost savings of up to $1.3 million per inmate over each inmate's lifetime. Moreover, the Commission found that the emotional and psychological costs wrought by prolonged appeals sought by defendants to avoid capital punishment were "devastating" to the families of homicide victims.
3) There is increasing evidence that the death penalty is inconsistent with society's evolving standards of decency. The Commission pointed to opinion polls showing a decline in support for the death penalty, the fact that a number of witnesses from the religious community urged abolition on moral and religious grounds, the US Supreme Court's recent observations of the emerging national consensus against executing the mentally retarded and juveniles, and anti-death penalty policy trends across a number of states, from Illinois to New York.
4) Abolition of the death penalty will eliminate the risk of disproportionality in capital sentencing. The Commission heard testimony about how "sometimes the crimes for which defendants spend life in prison are worse [than the crimes for which defendants are sentenced to death]." Since similar murder cases risk being treated differently in the death penalty context, the Commission found an elevated probability that the death penalty is administered arbitrarily.
5) The penological interest in executing a small number of persons guilty of murder is not sufficiently compelling to justify the risk of making an irreversible mistake. The Commission heard from: the Innocence Project, which indicated that of the 182 individuals exonerated through DNA testing at the time his testimony (it is now over 190), 14 had been sentenced to death (also noting that DNA only exonerates defendants in the small percentage of serious criminal cases in which it is available); Larry Peterson (who was tried capitally and subsequently convicted in New Jersey for a rape/murder in 1989 before DNA testing proved his innocence after 18 years in prison); and Jennifer Thompson, a rape victim who described her misidentification of Ronald Cotton (resulting in Mr. Cotton spending 20 years in prison).
6) The alternative of life imprisonment in a maximum security institution without the possibility of parole would sufficiently ensure public safety and address other legitimate social and penal interests, including the interests of the families of murder victims.
The only finding the Commission affirmatively (and unfortunately) disavowed was the existence of racial bias in the application of the death penalty in New Jersey. Although the Commission noted the disproportionate presence of African Americans in New Jersey's correctional institutions in relation to their general population, as well as geographic and race-of-victim disparities in the administration of the death penalty, it did not find the existence of racial bias.
In response, the Attorney General issued a statement concluding that New Jersey's death penalty had not achieved its objectives and hence it would not object if the legislature were to replace the death penalty with life imprisonment without parole.
These are, of course, just recommendations; it is up to the legislature to change the law. If and when it does, however, it is a significant and positive step forward not only for the Garden State, but in the long and tortured history of capital punishment in America. Hopefully New Jersey will become a leader in the abolitionist movement, an example for other states to follow, so our nation, in the non-violent spirit of Dr. King, can advance our straggling standards of decency.