With the backing of Gov. Jon Corzine and its two top Democratic legislators, New Jersey may soon become the first state to abolish the death penalty legislatively since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the ultimate punishment three decades ago, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer. Legislative leaders have called for a vote before the current lame-duck session ends in early January. The timing would allow almost a quarter of the state lawmakers – 27 who are retiring or were defeated this fall – to vote during their last weeks in office without fear of political consequences.
The move to end capital punishment has been fueled by waning public support for executions, doubt about its deterrence, and growing worries about the fairness of a significant number of convictions, said Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts, a Democrat whose party controls the lower chamber. The effort gained momentum early this year when a New Jersey study commission voted, 12-1, to recommend that the state drop the penalty. New Jersey’s last execution was in 1963; its death-row population of eight is down from a high of 17 in 2001. The state Supreme Court has set aside numerous verdicts and systemically narrowed the grounds on which people could be put to death. More than 225 convicted murderers await lethal injection in Pennsylvania, where Gov. Ed Rendell is a supporter of capital punishment. Pennsylvania has executed three killers since 1995, but only after each had dropped appeals. The Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington group that urges an end to executions, said recent legislative moves to stop capital punishment had fallen a few votes short in Colorado, Nebraska, and New Mexico.