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It’s official. Before 2007 came to a close, New Jersey became the first state in the United States in 40 years to abolish the death penalty.
With a stroke of a pen, Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine signed a law eliminating the state’s death sentence and replacing it with life without the possibility of parole. The measure was the culmination of a concerted statewide campaign.
In January 2007, a 13-member, appointed commission – including a police chief, a couple of prosecutors and a father who lost his daughter to a violent crime in 2000 – recommended abolishing the death penalty. In addition to citing concerns about the risk of executing an innocent person, the commission found that the death penalty was a poor deterrent to crime, increasingly “inconsistent with evolving standards of decency,” and not worth the financial and emotional costs.
Activists took these findings to the streets, the legislature and the public. In early December, after heated floor debates the state Senate and Assembly both passed the measure.
“Nobody wants to execute the wrong person,” says Abe Bonowitz, field manager for New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. “More importantly, the strength of murder victims’ families to be present and to share their tragedy was a way of helping legislators understand that the death penalty just creates more pain.”
Other states – including Maryland, New Mexico and South Dakota – are considering similar measures. In Illinois, a moratorium on executions has remained in place since 2000, when former Republican Gov. George Ryan halted executions in light of the revelation of wrongful convictions in the state and around the country.
Nationally, no executions have taken place since Sept. 25, 2007, when the state of Texas executed Michael Richard hours after the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to examine the constitutionality of lethal injection. Since then, a de facto moratorium on executions is pending a Supreme Court ruling on whether lethal injection violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Public confidence in the death penalty has eroded over the last decade, according to a June 2007 poll released by the Death Penalty Information Center. The poll, conducted by RT Strategies, found that 40 percent of Americans believe that they would be disqualified from serving on a jury in a death penalty case because of their moral beliefs. Moreover, 58 percent think executions should be halted temporarily while procedures are looked at more closely. The poll also found that a whopping 87 percent of people believe that an innocent prisoner was executed in recent years, and nearly 70 percent think that the wrongful execution of an innocent person is inevitable with capital punishment.
The findings of another study, conducted by Mark Peffley and Jon Hurwitz, recently published in the American Journal of Political Science, found that race matters when it comes to public opinion on the death penalty.
When a random set of white people were asked, “Do you favor or oppose the death penalty for persons convicted of murder?” 36 percent said that they strongly favored the death penalty. Another random set of white people was asked the same question, but with a slight variation: “Some people say that the death penalty is unfair because most of the people who are executed are African Americans. Do you favor or oppose the death penalty for persons convicted of murder?” In response to this question, 52 percent said that they strongly favored the death penalty, an increase of 16 percent.
To explore this disparity, Peffley and Hurwitz took a closer look at what whites and blacks believe causes crime. They found that whites were more likely to believe that personal failings were the primary cause of crime rather than social factors, such as poverty and inequality.
Yet, as African Americans continue to be sentenced to death disproportionately – comprising nearly 42 percent of the U.S. death row population – the New Jersey victory should be seen as a blow to racism in America. Additionally, since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, 80 percent of people executed have been executed for murders involving white victims, according to a 2003 Amnesty International report.
Meanwhile, in the race for the White House, talk about the death penalty is rare among the candidates. The top three contenders for the Democratic nomination – Sen. Hillary Clinton (N.Y.), Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and former Sen. John Edwards – all support the death penalty.
Indeed, even though Obama sponsored death penalty reform legislation during his tenure as state senator in Illinois, he supports capital punishment in cases “so heinous that the community is justified in expressing the full measure of its outrage by meting out the ultimate punishment,” according to his bestselling autobiography, The Audacity of Hope.
Of the Democratic candidates, only Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) and former Sen. Mike Gravel oppose the death penalty.
But as states like New Jersey and Illinois show, it doesn’t have to be presidential contenders who lead the nation away from capital punishment.
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Alice Kim is the director of human rights practice at the University of Chicago’s Pozen Center for Human Rights, teaches at a maximum security prison with the Prison+Neighborhood Arts Project, and is a co-founder of Chicago Torture Justice Memorials. She is co-editor of The Long Term: Resisting Life Sentences, Working Toward Freedom (Haymarket Books).