PHILADELPHIA New Jersey is preparing to scrap the death penalty next week, becoming the first U.S. state to legislatively abolish capital punishment since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated it in 1976.
State legislators will vote on Monday and Thursday on bills that would end the death penalty and substitute life without parole for the most serious crimes. Lawmakers say the measure is likely to be approved.
The state Senate bill's sponsor, Democrat Ray Lesniak, predicted it will pass both houses of the Democrat-controlled legislature and, after a promised signature by Gov. Jon Corzine, will become law before the end of the year.
"I'm very confident it will pass by a slim margin in the Senate, and by a wider majority in the Assembly," said Lesniak.
Alex DeCroce, leader of the minority Republicans in the state Assembly, said Democrats were rushing the measure through without proper debate. He did not know how individual lawmakers would vote but predicted, "The majority is going to force it though."
New Jersey, with eight people on death row, has not executed anyone since 1963.
A legislative commission recommended in January that the death penalty be abolished, saying there was no evidence it deterred the most serious crimes. Life without parole cost less, and capital punishment is "inconsistent with evolving standards of decency," the commission said.
Thirty-seven American states and the federal government have the death penalty but its use has fallen in recent years. The number of death sentences handed down fell by 60 percent from 1999 to 2006 while the number of executions dropped by 40 percent over the same period, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington research group.
The United States executed 53 people in 2006, the lowest number for 10 years, and the total is expected to fall this year to 42, said Richard Dieter of the DPIC.
Executions this year have been subject to an effective moratorium pending a decision expected by mid-2008 from the U.S. Supreme Court on whether lethal injection, the method of execution used by all but one state, amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.
New Jersey's decision could encourage other states that have been reevaluating capital punishment to follow, amid increasing concern that innocent people have been executed, said Dieter.
"It has been difficult for legislators to take the final step," said Dieter. "If one state does this, it could open the way for others."