Brian Evans, an associate with the Program to Abolish the Death Penalty at Amnesty International USA, told IPS, "This is the first legislative abolition of the death penalty since 1965, when West Virginia and Iowa abolished it. In the intervening years, there have been two or three states in the northeast where the courts have ruled the death penalty unconstitutional."
"I think it's a fairly big step because it's a legislative abolition, instead of the courts, done by elected representatives. New Jersey is a large and diverse state, it's not a small state like Maine or Vermont, so it's going to have more of an impact," he said.
Rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, applauded the decision.
"This is a ray of hope for the more than 3,000 men and women still on death row in the United States," David Fathi of Human Rights Watch's U.S. Program told IPS. "It shows that progress is possible, and brings us one step closer to the day when the United States joins all of its peer nations in rejecting the death penalty.
In a statement, Larry Cox, the executive director of Amnesty USA, said that: "Contrary to what some have said, the New Jersey vote was not taken too quickly or lightly. It was only after careful study and deliberation that legislators concluded that the death penalty does not address violent crime or make New Jerseyans any safer."
"The problems uncovered by this examination of the death penalty are not unique to New Jersey. Lawmakers across the country are realising that capital punishment is permanently flawed, and the public is increasingly wary of a system that holds the very real possibility of executing the innocent," Cox said.
The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP), in an overview of the death penalty, outlined a wide-ranging set of reasons why capital punishment is flawed public policy.
First, executions are carried out at staggering cost to taxpayers. The governor's office estimated that it has cost the state of New Jersey more than a quarter-billion dollars to pursue the death penalty against defendants since it was reinstated in 1982.
Scientific studies have consistently failed to demonstrate that executions deter people from committing crime any more than long prison sentences. In fact, the states that do not have the death penalty have much lower murder rates.
States also appear unable to prevent the accidental execution of innocent people. In the past two years, evidence has come to light which indicates that four men may have been wrongfully executed in recent years for crimes they did not commit.
Race plays a prominent role in determining who lives and who dies. Since 1977, blacks and whites have been the victims of murders in almost equal numbers, yet 80 percent of the people executed in that period were convicted of murders involving white victims.
The death penalty is applied at random. Politics, quality of legal counsel and the jurisdiction where a crime is committed are more often the determining factors in a death penalty case than the facts of the crime itself.
Capital punishment goes against almost every religion. Even though isolated passages of religious scripture have been quoted in support of the death penalty, almost all religious groups in the United States regard executions as immoral.
Critics also say the U.S. is keeping company with notorious human rights abusers. The vast majority of countries in Western Europe, North America and South America -- more than 128 nations worldwide -- have abandoned capital punishment in law or in practice. Year after year, only three countries lead the U.S. in executions -- China, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Anti-death penalty advocates also point out that millions could be diverted to help the families of murder victims. Funds now being used for the costly process of executions could be used to help families put their lives back together through counselling, restitution, crime victim hotlines, and other services addressing their needs.
Bad lawyers are also a persistent problem because in many cases, with court-appointed attorneys who are overworked, underpaid, or lack the trial experience required for death penalty cases. There have even been instances in which lawyers appointed to a death case were so inexperienced that they were completely unprepared for the sentencing phase of the trial.
Finally, death penalty opponents note that life without parole is a sensible alternative. Almost every state in the U.S. now has life in prison without parole. Unlike the death penalty, a sentence of life in prison without parole allows mistakes to be corrected.
In a poll carried out by Quinnipiac University last week, New Jersey voters opposed 53-39 percent the proposal to eliminate the death penalty in the state, but by an almost identical 52-39 percent, they preferred life without parole rather than the death penalty for people convicted of first-degree murder.
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Albion Monitor December
17, 2007 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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