Legislative Activity - New Jersey

  • New Jersey Senate Approves Abolition Bill 21-16 After hours of debate and testimony, the New Jersey Senate today approved bill S-171 which will replace the state's death penalty with a sentence of life without parole. The measure was approved by a vote of 21-16 and now moves to the State Assembly, where approval is also expected in a vote on Thursday. The governor has indicated he will sign the bill into law, making New Jersey the first state to legislatively abolish the death penalty in over 40 years. Around the country, the death penalty is declining in use and other states are examining their own capital punishment statutes. (See DPIC's Press Release; see also N.J. Star-Ledger, Dec. 10, 2007).
  • New Jersey Senate to Vote on Death Penalty Abolition Today, December 10, 2007, the New Jersey Senate will vote on a bill (Senate Bill 171) to replace the death penalty with the sentence of life without parole. Earlier, the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission held extensive public hearings that culminated in a report calling for an end to the death penalty. The Commission consisted of a wide range of perspectives, including law enforcement, victims, and attorneys. Some of the key findings of the report included:
  • Abolition of the death penalty will eliminate the risk of disproportionality in capital sentencing.
  • 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 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 penological interests, including the interests of the families of murder victims.

The New Jersey Assembly is expected to vote on a similar bill (Assembly Bill 3716) on December 13, and Governor Jon Corzine will sign the bill if it passes both houses. The bill would make New Jersey the first state to legislatively abolish the death penalty since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Read the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission report here.

  • New Jersey Moves Closer to Abolishing the Death Penalty By an 8-4 vote on Dec. 3, the New Jersey Senate Budget Committee voted to advance a bill to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life in prison without parole. The bill would make New Jersey the first state to legislatively abolish the death penalty since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Senator Raymond Lesniak, the bill's sponsor, cited a recent case of wrongful conviction in New Jersey when explaining his support for abolishing the death penalty. He stated, "There are hundreds of [people] throughout the United States who were wrongly convicted of murder…. You can't say it can't happen in New Jersey. It can. It's impossible for human beings to devise a system free of the risk of human error.” In January of 2007, a New Jersey commission began investigating capital punishment and its place in the state’s criminal justice system. Their report found that not only was their no clear evidence that the death penalty deterred murder, but also that it was more expensive than sentencing a person to life in prison. Families of several murder victims likewise urged the state to abolish the death penalty. Charles Bennett’s daughter and two grandchildren were killed by Bennett’s son-in-law Scott McCarter, who killed himself after the murders. Bennett told the commission, "Had Scott lived I cannot imagine our family going through the agony of a death penalty process." He also said that he and his family would have "fought ferociously" against a death sentence so they could get quicker justice for the loss of their loved ones. The death penalty bill is expected to be put to a full vote in the New Jersey Senate and Assembly before the legislative session ends on Jan. 8, 2008. Governor Jon Corzine supports the bill. The last execution in New Jersey took place in 1963, and the state currently has 8 people on death row. (“New Jersey Moves Toward Abolishing Death Penalty,” by Tom Hester, Jr., Associated Press. December 3, 2007).
  • New Jersey Lawmakers to Vote on Abolishing Death Penalty New Jersey Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts, Jr. (pictured) has announced that on December 13 members of the Assembly will vote on whether to reduce the state's most severe punishment to life in prison without parole. A spokeswoman for Senate President Richard J. Codey said the Senate is likely to take similar action before the legislative session ends on January 8, though a date has not been set for the vote. If approved by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Jon Corzine, who opposes the death penalty, the move would make New Jersey the first state to vote to abolish capital punishment since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated it in 1976. Roberts made the announcement in Trenton after meeting with Sister Helen Prejean, author of "Dead Man Walking." He called New Jersey's death penalty a "flawed public policy" that is costly, discriminatory, immoral and cruel. He added that "the consequences are irreparable if mistakes are made" and said that "the time has come" to consider the abolition measure. Prejean praised the decision and said that New Jersey is "going to be a beacon on the hill." New Jersey reinstated the death penalty in 1982, but has not executed anyone since 1963. The Legislature imposed a moratorium on executions in December 2005 when it formed a commission that studied the death penalty. The state has eight men on death row. (Associated Press, November 9, 2007).
  • Hearings to Begin on Historic Legislation to Abolish Death Penalty in New Jersey The New Jersey Senate Judiciary Committee will hold hearings on May 10, 2007, on legislation that would replace the state's death penalty with a sentence of life without parole. If passed, New Jersey would become the first state since capital punishment was reinstated to abolish the death penalty legislatively. The bill stems from a January report issued by a special study commission appointed by the New Jersey legislature. The commission's report overwhelmingly recommended abolition of the death penalty, noting that the state's capital punishment system costs taxpayers more than life terms for prisoners, and that there is no evidence the death penalty deters people from committing murders. "The death penalty simply doesn't work as a deterrent and the risks and costs involved far outweigh any benefits it may bring to our society," noted New Jersey Senator Shirley Turner, a supporter of the measure. "The fact is, there is no way to guarantee that an innocent man or woman would not be wrongly executed. As a society, we cannot risk the lives of the innocent to exact punishment on those who are guilty. . . . New Jersey has moved beyond the need for punishments based on revenge rather than justice. We are a decent, compassionate people who would rather see the most heinous criminals locked up for eternity than executed," she said. Governor John Corzine favors abolishing the death penalty, as do Democratic leaders of both the New Jersey Senate and House. Currently, there are nine men on the state's death row. New Jersey has not had an execution since 1963. (Associated Press, May 6, 2007). UPDATE: At the conclusion of its hearing on legislation to replace the state's death penalty with life without parole, the New Jersey Senate Judiciary Committee voted 8-2 to release the measure to the full Senate for consideration. (Associated Press, May 10, 2007).
  • New Jersey Legislative Commission Recommends Abolition of State's Death Penalty After extensive public hearings, the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission issued a report on January 2 calling for an end to the state's death penalty and replacing it with a sentence of life without parole. The 13-member Commission was appointed by the state legislature, which also placed a moratorium on all executions until a report was prepared. The report cited the risks of executing the innocent, the high costs of the death penalty, and society's evolving standards of decency in calling for the abolition of capital punishment. The County Prosecutors' Association of New Jersey concurred with the final recommendations of the Commission Report. "There is increasing evidence that the death penalty is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency," the report states. Ending the death penalty would better serve the state's interests and the needs of victims' family members: "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 penological interests, including the interests of the families of murder victims," the report found. New Jersey has not had an execution since 1963. There are nine people on death row. (Associated Press, Jan. 2, 2007). Read the full Report (available by 2 p.m., Jan. 2).
  • New Jersey Commission Weighs Whether Death Penalty Should be Continued During its first public hearing on capital punishment, the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission heard testimony from witnesses representing a broad spectrum of opinions. Almost all those testifying spoke against retaining the death penalty. Among those who testified before the 13-member panel were legal experts, religious leaders, murder victims' family members, and exonerees such as Larry Peterson, who spent 18 years in a New Jersey prison for a rape and murder he did not commit. During the hearing, Peterson noted that he was grateful that jurors in his case chose not to hand down the death sentence sought by prosecutors because "if you take a life, you can't turn around and correct the wrong that has been done." It took Peterson's attorneys a decade to secure testing of biological samples using DNA technology. Those tests led to the reversal of his conviction and his release in May 2006. Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project in New York City, also testified about the issue of wrongful convictions during the hearing, noting, "It's ridiculous . . .to assume that mistakes will not be made. We have demonstrated that there is a lot of error in the system." On the day of the hearing, a report entitled "Innocence Lost in New Jersey" was released by New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. The report focused on 25 innocence cases in the state and listed 8 causes that lead to wrongful convictions, including eyewitness error, false testimony, and a focus on winning instead of seeking justice. In other testimony offered during the hearing, Lorry Post, who began his work to abolish the death penalty after his daughter was murdered by her husband, said the current death penalty brings no finality, is unfair, wastes money, and risks killing innocent people. "It creates a culture of killings, and it's a horrible, horrible thing, which almost matches the horror of what some of us have lost," Post stated. The New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission was created by the state legislature, which voted in January to halt executions in the state while the fairness and costs of imposing the death penalty are examined. The Commission is to report its findings to lawmakers by November 15. No one has been executed in New Jersey since 1963. (Philadelphia Inquirer, July 20, 2006, and Cherry Hill Courier-Post, July 20, 2006). Read an Executive Summary of "Innocence Lost in New Jersey." Read more about the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission. See Innocence, Victims, and Testimony of DPIC's Executive Director before the Study Commission.
  • The Death Penalty Moratorium in New Jersey New Jersey lawmakers have voted to suspend executions while a study commission examines the fairness and expense of the state's death penalty. Governor Richard Codey signed the bill on January 12. New Jersey is the first state to impose a moratorium on executions through legislation. (Associated Press, January 9, 2006 and The Trenton Times, December 14, 2005)
    • NEW JERSEY'S MORATORIUM - New Jersey's moratorium will remain in effect until January 15, 2007. New Jersey is the third state to halt executions since capital punishment was reinstated. Since 2000, moratoriums have been established by executive order in Illinois and Maryland. Maryland's moratorium has since been lifted. The death penalty statutes in New York and Kansas were both found unconstitutional in 2004 and have not been remedied.
    • THE STUDY COMMISSION - New Jersey's study commission must be appointed within 45 days of the bill's signing into law. The group will consist of 13 members and they will have until November 2006 to report their findings. Among the issues the commission will examine are possible racial and geographic bias, costs, and whether alternatives exist that will both ensure public safety and address the needs of victims' families.
    • LEGISLATIVE VOTE HISTORY(In favor of the moratorium)
      • Assembly 55-21 (12/15/05)
      • Senate 30-6 (1/9/06)
  • New Jersey Lawmakers Vote to Suspend Executions As Death Penalty Study Proceeds New Jersey lawmakers have voted to suspend executions in the state while a task force studies the fairness and costs of imposing capital punishment. After passing the Senate in December and the Assembly on January 9 by a vote of 55-21, the measure now goes to Governor Richard Codey for his signature into law. Codey has indicated that he will sign the bill, an act that will make New Jersey the first state to pass a death penalty moratorium into law through legislation. The bill establishes a 13-member study commission that will have until November 2006 to report on whether the death penalty is fairly imposed and whether alternatives such as life without parole would ensure public safety and meet the needs of victims families. According to the bill, executions would be halted while the study is underway. "This is an issue we should have confronted a long time ago. The injustice of the current system and the steep price tag of it as well means we ought to take a look at it," said Assembly leader Joseph Roberts. Senator Diane Allen added, "In New Jersey, there has been a sea change in how people view the death penalty. ... We've looked at the cost, which is enormously more for someone on death row than for a person who's imprisoned for life without parole." There are 10 people on New Jersey's death row. The last execution in the state took place in 1963. (Associated Press, January 9, 2006)
  • New Jersey Governor Vetoes Death Penalty Study Bill A month after New Jersey's legislature passed by a wide margin a bipartisan bill calling for the creation of a study commission to examine the cost, fairness and effects of capital prosecutions in the state, Governor James McGreevey has vetoed the measure. The bill passed the legislature in December 2003 with the support of key state lawmakers, including death penalty proponents. In recent years, public support for capital punishment in general has sharply declined in New Jersey, and the majority of those polled have favored a study. (N.Y. Times, December 14, 2003; New Jerseyans for a Death Penalty Moratorium, Press Release, Jan. 12, 2004). Read the bill.
  • New Jersey Legislators Vote to Study Death Penalty Members of New Jersey's legislature have passed by a wide margin a bipartisan bill calling for the creation of a study commission to examine the cost, fairness and effects of capital prosecutions in that state. The bill had the support of key state legislators, including Republican Senator Robert Martin. Martin said that he believed it might be time for New Jersey to consider a complete ban on capital punishment, noting that the state's review process "is so cumbersome and expensive" that New Jersey might be better off "with a punishment that was life imprisonment without parole." Public opinion surveys show that many New Jerseyans agree with Martin. In a recent poll, public support for the death penalty drops to 36% when respondents are given the sentencing option of life without parole. Support for capital punishment in general has also sharply declined. According to the Eagleton Poll at Rutgers University, 76% of those questioned supported the death penalty in 1975, and in 1981, 73% stated support for the punishment. A 1999 poll revealed that support had declined to 63%. The study bill will now go to New Jersey Governor James McGreevey for his consideration and signature into law. (New York Times, December 14, 2003) Read the legislation.
  • In January 2003, members of New Jersey's General Assembly passed a bill authorizing a comprehensive, one-year death penalty study. The 54-10-1 vote of support for bill A1913, introduced by New Jersey's Deputy Speaker Alfred E. Steele, authorizes a study commission to look at all aspects of the current capital punishment law. Key questions include whether the death penalty is a deterrent to crime, whether the cost from indictment to execution outweighs the cost of life in prison without parole, whether selection and sentencing of defendants in New Jersey capital trials is arbitrary or unfair in any way, and whether alternatives to the death penalty exist. Steele noted, "The death penalty system in New Jersey is irreparably broken. All it has brought our state is significant expenditures of time and money defending lengthy and numerous constitutional challenges and appeals. The financial costs alone of attempting to implement the death penalty may no longer be justifiable given the other needs of this state," The bill now awaits further consideration by the New Jersey Senate. (New Jersey Assembly Democratic Majority, January 23, 2003) .
  • In August 2001, Attorney General John Framer Jr. launched a review of standards that prosecutors use for seeking the death penalty. Farmer will heaad a panel to study why some counties are far more likely than others to seek the death penalty and whether the state should impose a more uniform approach to the way it is applied. (Star-Ledger, 8/21/01)