Wednesday, January 2, 2013

America’s Retreat From the Death Penalty -

Rome's colosseum was illuminated in tribute to New Jersey's repeal of the death penalty

Five years ago I was inspired to initiate a symposium to look back at New Jersey's twenty-five year experiment with restoration of the death penalty.  From 1982-2007 there were 228 capital trials and 60 death sentences.  Nine men were on death row at the moment of repeal in December 2007.  
In those twenty five years New Jersey Public Defenders fought every capital case.  No one was executed, despite 60 death sentences.  In the annals of defense lawyers it was the greatest capital effort in history.  And the New Jersey Supreme Court produced the most conscientious body of death penalty jurisprudence that any court has ever produced.    Of those judges Chief Justice Deborah Poritz and Associate Justices Alan Handler and Virginia Long deserve special mention.  Poritz as leader of the proportionality review effort.  The two Associates were the most determined foes of capital punishment.  Left, right, and center the justices scrutinized each case with great care.
Seton Hall Law School and Fordham's Stein Center for Law & Ethics sponsored the conference.  Former Chief Justice James Zazzali convened the gathering of citizens, legislators, judges, defenders, and prosecutors.  Titled Legislation, Litigation, Reflection and Repeal: The Legislative Abolition of the Death Penalty in New Jerseywe focused on the extraordinary efforts of three groups: the New Jersey Supreme Court, the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender, and the citizens group New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.  Thanks to a moment when stars aligned two conscientious Republican legislators - Christopher Bateman and Robert Martin led the way as the measure passed the legislature. Governor Jon Corzine signed the repeal measure.

My introductory essay was called Herald of Change.  I worried that I was being groundlessly optimistic.   But since then four more states have repealed the death penalty, as the Times editorial notes today.

America’s Retreat From the Death Penalty -
 "In 2012, Connecticut became the fifth state in five years to abolish the penalty. Nine states executed inmates, the fewest in two decades. Three-fourths of the 43 executions in 2012 were carried out in only four states. The number of new death sentences remained low at 77 — about one-third the number in 2000 — with just four states accounting for almost two-thirds of those sentences. While 33 states retain the death penalty on their books, 13 of them have not executed anyone for at least five years. Those 13 states plus the 17 without the penalty means that 30 states are not carrying it out — and that includes California, which retained the death penalty in a November referendum vote. Almost one-quarter of the 3,146 death row inmates in the United States, as of October, are imprisoned in California, but that state has not executed anyone in seven years."

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