EDITORIAL: Put a halt to death penalty

State Assembly should pass the bill that would call for a study of New Jersey’s death-penalty law.

New Jersey is poised to join a handful of states and strike a blow for human decency by doing away with the death penalty — at least temporarily.
   The Assembly Judiciary Committee will consider a bill today (Thursday), passed in December by the state Senate, that would create a special commission to study New Jersey’s death-penalty law. The commission would pay particular attention to how much the law’s implementation costs, whether it is applied fairly, whether it is a deterrent to crime and if it should be abolished.
   The bill would give the commission a deadline of Nov. 15, 2006, to complete its work. In the meantime, a moratorium would be imposed on all state executions, and it would remain in effect until at least 60 days after the commission finishes its work.
   This same measure passed both houses two years ago, only to be vetoed by then-Gov. James E. McGreevey. But this time around, it has the support of acting Gov. Richard Codey. If the bill, which passed the Senate by a vote of 30-6, makes it through the Assembly and gets to the acting governor’s desk before Jan. 10, when the current legislative session ends, he has indicated he will sign it into law.
   As a practical matter, it probably doesn’t make much difference whether the commission is formed — and the moratorium put in place — in the waning days of the 211th session of the New Jersey Legislature or the early days of the 212th. Not only has no one been executed in New Jersey since the death penalty was reinstated in 1982; there is no one currently on death row in imminent danger of becoming the state’s first recipient of a lethal injection.
   As a matter of public policy, New Jersey choosing to revisit its 23-year-old decision reinstating the death penalty — and temporarily halt its imposition while this study is ongoing — does make a difference. The state has an opportunity to make a forceful statement that there is simply too much uncertainty about the death penalty to keep it on the books. The alternative is to put this matter off for another day, another legislative session and another governor.
   It’s hard to imagine that any thoughtful lawmaker could fail to recognize and acknowledge the pressing need to re-examine the whole issue of capital punishment. Major technological advances, particularly in the area of DNA testing, have proven beyond a shadow of doubt that innocent people have been wrongly convicted and put to death. Death-penalty proponents are unable to point to a single reputable study showing that the law has any deterrent effect whatsoever. And nobody can dispute the shameful statistical evidence that residency on the death row is reserved almost exclusively for those who are poor and black — particularly if their victims aren’t. As Sister Helen Prejean pointed out during a recent visit to New Jersey, most murder victims in the United States are black — but most executed murderers are blacks who kill whites.
   For all of these reasons, New Jersey should abolish the death penalty. The moratorium approved by the Senate and awaiting Assembly action would be a good first step. And it ought to be taken now, in the lame-duck session, before the momentum dies and the tedious legislative process has to crank itself up all over again. With an obstructionist governor gone and a sympathetic acting governor in office, there is no reason for the Assembly to put off until tomorrow what it already did two years ago — pass the moratorium bill.