Even as a native New Yorker, today I'm proud to say my father is a Jersey boy (sorry, Dad, for blowing your cover).
After 1,099 executions in America over the past 31 years (the second highest number in the world), and 741 in just the past decade; after 126 people on death row have been exonerated (including 15 by DNA testing); as some state governments continue trying --- in shame and in vain --- to find a "humane" way to kill people (having moved from hanging to shooting to electrocuting to poisoning); and after the United States, China, Iran, Sudan, Pakistan, and Iraq (not exactly the torch-bearing sextet for human rights) were responsible for 91% of the world's executions last year, yesterday New Jersey became only the first state to abolish the death penalty since it was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976.
Governor Corzine, who commuted the sentences of the eight men on New Jersey's death row to sentences of life without the parole the night before, ended executions in the Garden (of Eden, at least for now) State by signing the abolition bill (which last week passed the New Jersey Assembly by a vote of 44-36 and the Senate by a vote 21-16). The last states to legislatively end capital punishment were Iowa and West Virginia, 42 years ago.
New Jersey realized what many states stubbornly deny about the death penalty. It does not deter. It does not lower the crime rate. It does not bring back victims. It is violent. It is cruel. It is as irreversible for the innocent as it is for the guilty. It is expensive. It is not the only means of incapacitating someone (that is why we have prison and lifelong jail sentences). It is morally offensive to a majority of the world's countries, 133 of which are abolitionist in either law or practice. It is applied inconsistently and in a racially discriminatory manner.
A recent Connecticut study led by Yale law professor John J. Donohue III showed that minorities are disproportionately sentenced to die for their crimes, and decisions to seek the death penalty are often arbitrary. Included in the studies' findings are that (1) black defendants receive death sentences at three times the rate of white defendants in cases where the victims were white; (2) accused killers of white victims are charged and prosecuted more severely than people accused of killing minorities; and (3) minorities who kill whites receive death sentences at higher rates than minorities who kill minorities. A recent study by Ohio State University examining death row cases in 16 states also found that blacks convicted of killing whites are more likely than others convicted of murder to be sentenced to death and more likely to be executed.
As Governor Corzine stated yesterday, the bill marks "a day of progress --- for the State of New Jersey and for the millions of people across our nation and around the globe who reject the death penalty as a moral or practical response to the grievous, even heinous, crime of murder." Quoting Dr. Martin Luther King's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Corzine declared that "man must evolve, for all human conflict, a method of resolution which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation." Acknowledging that the "government cannot provide a foolproof death penalty that precludes the possibility of executing the innocent" --- a morally untenable risk for him and many others ---, that it has cost New Jersey more than a quarter-billion dollars, above and beyond incarceration, to pursue the death penalty since it was reinstated in 1982, and that "it is difficult, if not impossible, to devise a humane technique of execution … that is not cruel and unusual," Governor Corzine ended the possibility of state-sanctioned executions.
Unfortunately, New Jersey's new law will have no statistical effect on America's execution rates, since along with New York, New Hampshire, Kansas, and South Dakota, New Jersey had the lowest execution rate among death penalty states (0%). Had this bill passed in execution-happy states such as Oklahoma, Texas, Delaware, Virginia, Arkansas, South Carolina, Alabama, or Louisiana, the impact would have been, in terms of human lives, significant.
Nonetheless, New Jersey has taken an important symbolic step towards a more sane and humane society, a step that hopefully other states will follow. By doing so, New Jersey echoed the sentiments of Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, who wrote in a dissent in 1994 that "rather than continue to coddle the Court's delusion that the desired level of fairness has been achieved and the need for regulation eviscerated, I feel morally and intellectually obligated simply to concede that the death penalty experiment has failed. It is virtually self-evident to me now that no combination of procedural rules or substantive regulations ever can save the death penalty from its inherent constitutional deficiencies." As such, said Justice Blackmun, "I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death."
New Jersey tinkered with the machinery of death in perhaps the only way that Justice Blackmun would have found acceptable: by disassembling it.
So, today, this New Yorker tips his cap to his neighbors across the Hudson River, declaring with unfamiliar enthusiasm that his father is a Jersey native.