Beyond New Jersey: The inevitability of death penalty repeal

By Diann Rust-Tierney and Rick Halperin

What do law enforcement officers, prosecutors, crime victims’ advocates and both Democratic and Republican state legislators have in common?

Recently all of these groups came together in New Jersey to supportlegislation to repeal that state’s death penalty. Once the legislation issigned by Gov. Jon Corzine, New Jersey will become the first state tolegislatively repeal the death penalty since Iowa and West Virginia did soway back in 1965.

The fact that New Jersey acted as it did may surprise anyone not familiar with the growing national discussion over capital punishment. But for those who are familiar with this discussion, the surprise is not that NewJersey acted as it did – but rather why other states such as Texas have not taken similar steps toward repeal.

The overwhelming and bipartisan vote to repeal New Jersey’s death penaltydid not happen overnight – far from it. And it will not happen over night in Texas. In the end, it came after study, discussion and deliberation -and after hundreds and hundreds of hours of testimony from police, prosecutors, murder victims’ family members and others.

In New Jersey, a special commission was appointed to thoroughly study thepros and cons of the death penalty – and to recommend what measures could be taken to fix the state’s death penalty statutes. The commission was made up of victims’ rights advocates, county prosecutors and other members of law enforcement, a retired New Jersey Supreme Court justice and many others.

The study found that there was no “fix” for the death penalty. It found that it is a deeply flawed public policy and, in the words of one state senator who in 1982 voted to reinstate the death penalty in New Jersey, it is a “false and ineffective choice for taxpayers and residents who have lost loved ones. It has for too long been sustained by mythology and fiction, propped up by outdated rhetoric when courage and common sense would have served us better.”

The commission further found that the death penalty squanders millions in tax dollars, does not serve a legitimate purpose such as crime deterrence, delays healing for the loved ones of murder victims and, despite many safeguards, carries no guarantee against what would be our worst nightmare- the execution of an innocent person.

New Jersey is hardly the first state to begin to rethink the nation’s experiment with capital punishment. Illinois and Maryland have had moratoriums. California, North Carolina and Tennessee have had study commissions. All the while, death sentences are down sharply and executions have decreased since reaching a crescendo in the late 1990s.

In 2007, the State of Texas carried out 26 executions, accounting for 62% of the executions that took place in the United States this year. The executions in Texas occurred at a time when nearly a dozen other states had instituted a moratorium or were considering issues related to the administration of lethal injection. From January 10 to April 23, Texas was the only executing state in the country. Texas now has executed a total of 405 people since 1982 (of 1,099 executions nationwide since1977).

According to data available from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the Office of Court Administration, 15 men were sentenced to death inTexas in 2007 (as of December 14, 2007). Over the last five years, the number of new death sentences in Texas has declined by approximately 50%,which mirrors national trends.

In Texas and across the nation, the death penalty is under increased scrutiny and the result of such scrutiny is that the public is beginningto arrive at an inevitable conclusion: capital punishment is a fundamentally flawed public policy that is collapsing under the weight of its many blunders, biases and bureaucracies. Blunders? 125 people havebeen freed from death row after evidence of their innocence emerged. Biases? Try as we might, we have yet to find a way to fairly decide who gets death and who doesn’t and at the end of the day who is actuallyexecuted. Bureaucracies? In New Jersey, $253 million has been spent on capital punishment, 60 people have been sentenced to death, 52 death sentences have been reversed and not one person has been executed. Across the nation, many of the 3,300 people on death rows have sat there for decades.

In New Jersey, regardless of their initial views on capital punishment, a panel of experts and a bipartisan group of lawmakers determined that the system is beyond repair. When will Texas reach the same inevitable conclusion?
Diann Rust-Tierney is the executive director of the National Coalition toAbolish the Death Penalty. Rick Halperin is the president of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and a professor of Human Rights at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.