Wednesday, January 03, 2007

New Jersey panel urges abolition of death penalty

New Jersey panel urges abolition of death penalty
By Jon Hurdle

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - New Jersey's death penalty should be abolished because it fails to deter murderers, burdens the state financially and is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency, a legislative panel said on Tuesday.

The New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission, set up last year by state lawmakers to assess if capital punishment should be kept, argued the death penalty should be replaced with life imprisonment in a maximum-security jail without parole.

The 13-person panel -- representing police, prosecutors, public defenders, the judiciary and families of murder victims -- found the death penalty does not achieve its goal of deterring the worst murders, and that the legal costs of it outweigh those of keeping a criminal in prison for life.

New Jersey, where nine people are currently on death row, conducted its last execution in 1963 and then suspended its death penalty because of uncertainty about the views of the U.S. Supreme Court, which reinstated capital punishment in 1976. New Jersey's current death penalty law dates from 1982.

Thirty-eight of the United States' 50 states have the death penalty -- all use lethal injection except Nebraska which uses the electric chair.

But Florida suspended its death penalty in December after a botched lethal injection led to a man taking 34 minutes to die, while in California last month a federal judge said the state's lethal injection methods caused an "undue risk" of pain "so extreme" that it may violate a constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Making life imprisonment the ultimate penalty in New Jersey would ensure public safety and the rights of murder victims' families, while removing the risk of executing someone in error, the 133-page report said.

"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 report said.

It recommended that any cost savings from abolishing the death penalty should be used to provide benefits and services for the families of murder victims.

Reed Gusciora, a Democratic assemblyman, welcomed the commission's "well reasoned" recommendations and said there is a "very good" chance they will become law in the Democrat-controlled legislature.

Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine said in a statement that as an opponent of the death penalty, he looked forward to working with the legislature to implement the panel's recommendations.

But Republican Assemblyman Guy Gregg said he was "surprised and shocked" at the commission's "arbitrary opinion" against a penalty that he argued should be allowed to continue for the worst crimes. Gregg noted that voters approved a constitutional amendment in favor of capital punishment in 1992.