TRENTON, New Jersey (Reuters) - New Jersey took its first legislative step on Thursday toward becoming the first U.S. state to abolish executions since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated them in 1976.
The state Senate’s judiciary committee voted by eight to two in favor of a bill to abolish capital punishment.
If — as predicted by some Democratic lawmakers — the rest of the Democratic-controlled legislature approves the measure, life in prison without the possibility of parole would become the most severe punishment meted out in the state.
Twelve other states already ban the death penalty.
New Jersey’s Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine is opposed to capital punishment and has said he will sign any such bill.
State Sen. Raymond Lesniak, a co-sponsor of the measure, said the death penalty legal process prolongs the suffering of murder victims’ families because the appeals process in execution cases can last for decades.
“To be meaningful, justice should be swift and sure,” Lesniak told the committee. “Life without parole, which begins immediately, is both of these; the death penalty is neither.”
Executions are rare in New Jersey, and throughout the Northeast, where four states are already among those without the death penalty. The state last put a criminal to death in 1963, and it imposed a moratorium on executions in late 2005, pending the outcome of a study.
As of January 1, there were 11 people on death row in New Jersey, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
The study, by a special commission, recommended in January that New Jersey abolish the death penalty, saying it does not deter the worst crimes, is costlier than life imprisonment and is “inconsistent with evolving standards of decency.”
Republican Sen. Gerald Cardinale, who voted against the bill on Thursday, called for the death penalty issue to be put to the voters in a referendum in November.
“Why don’t we raise the standard for the imposition of the death penalty so that only those who really deserve the death penalty get it?” he said.
Relatives of people murdered in the state spoke on both sides of the issue.
Vicki Scheiber’s daughter Shannon was raped and murdered in 1998, but she told the committee she gained some relief when the killer was sentenced to life without parole less than three months after being caught.
“I can’t imagine what my life would be like today if we were still waiting for his sentence to be served, or wondering if it will be carried out at all,” Scheiber told the four-and-a-half hour hearing.
Sharon Hazard-Johnson, whose parents were slain in 2001, urged the panel to uphold capital punishment.
With a photograph of her parents on an easel beside her, Hazard-Johnson said the proposed legislation does not limit appeals against life in prison without parole; does not prevent the governor granting clemency, and contains no provision for murderers who kill again in prison.
Pounding the table and with a breaking voice, she said, “If we are truly concerned about killing innocent people, we will abolish this bill right here, right now.”
Two days after six Muslims were charged with plotting to kill soldiers at New Jersey’s Fort Dix army base, Lesniak said terrorists should not be exempt from the proposed abolition.
“Terrorists want to be martyrs. Let’s not give them another reason to commit heinous acts by singling them out for the death penalty,” Lesniak said.
Nationwide, the number of death sentences and actual executions has declined to its lowest point in a decade, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, which that campaigns for abolition. The 38 states that have the death penalty executed 53 people in 2006, down from 98 in 1999, according to the center.