The 23 defendants awaiting trial on capital murder charges in New Jersey landed a reprieve of sorts last month, when the state legislature abolished the death penalty, says the Newark Star-Ledger. While Gov. Jon Corzine converted the death sentences of eight men on death row to life in prison, the debate over abolishing the death penalty was silent about pending capital cases, many of them built over several months, even years. Prosecutors find themselves in legal limbo, unable to use the death penalty as a bargaining chip to extract a guilty plea and uncertain about what kind of sentence might apply.
The law is so fresh that prosecutors are unsure whether a defendant convicted of murder in these pipeline cases is automatically subjected to a prison sentence of life without parole. Hudson County Prosecutor Edward DeFazio, whose office has five pending capital cases, was one of the first to tackle the issue, and he played it conservatively. Selection of a jury pool in the trial of Edward McDonald, who with a partner is accused of slaughtering a family of four in Jersey City in 2005, was held before the law was signed, but DeFazio proceeded as if the death penalty had already been abolished.