Monday 24 January 2011

Death penalty has no place in New Jersey, for any crime

In the aftermath of the fatal shooting of a Lakewood police officer, some lawmakers are pushing for a reinstatement of the death penalty for "heinous offenses" — such as killing a cop on duty.

As far as we can recall, the death penalty in New Jersey was reserved for heinous crimes before it was abolished in 2007. And yet now we have legislators trying to separate those crimes they believe to be the worst of the worst — in this instance cop killers, killers of a child, and the commission of a terrorist act that results in fatalities.
Such an exercise in categorizing crimes shouldn't matter, however, because the many good reasons to repeal capital punishment in the state still exist. And any move toward reinstatement shouldn't be taken seriously — as is likely to be the case anyway, since the fresh push is coming from the outnumbered Republican side, led by state Sen. Robert Singer, whose legislative district includes Lakewood.
New Jersey's death penalty was, in any event, useless. From the time it was reinstated in 1982 no one was executed; the last execution in the state occurred in 1963. Instead, inmates languished on death row throughout an almost endless appeals process. Calls to speed up that process were misguided, however, considering the many instances across the country of convicted killers — including those on death row — having their sentences overturned thanks to fresh DNA evidence.
The lesson was that even in capital cases, the possibility of convicting an innocent person exists. And an execution can't be taken back.
Another factor lobbying against the death penalty is that it's fiscally impractical, costing the state more throughout the lengthy appeals than a lifetime imprisonment would. And there's little evidence to suggest with any certainty that the presence of the death penalty serves as any kind of deterrent.
Morality issues remain, with the enduring question of whether eye-for-an-eye justice has a place in an evolving society. A special commission that examined the death penalty in New Jersey before its repeal suggested that capital punishment is not consistent with evolving standards of decency. But that's a debate unlikely to ever be resolved to everyone's satisfaction.
But we don't even have to dip into those concerns to understand that attempting to cherry-pick a few really bad crimes for which the death penalty is justified would be pointless.

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