PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - New Jersey lawmakers will consider abolishing the death penalty this week, starting a process that could see the liberal state become the first to scrap capital punishment since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated it in 1976.
On Thursday, the judiciary committee of the state Senate will consider two bills calling for New Jersey to replace execution with life imprisonment without parole. Capital punishment in the state is already suspended under a moratorium passed by legislators in late 2005.
Sen. Ray Lesniak, a Democrat and sponsor of one of the bills, said he was confident that a combined bill would be passed by the panel and, while its fate in the full Senate was less certain, it was likely that the legislation would become law some time this summer.
Lesniak, a former supporter of the death penalty, said he had changed his mind largely because of the risk of executing an innocent person.
“We have seen so many cases of innocent people being sent to death row, it’s just not worth taking the chance,” he said.
But Sen. Nicholas Asselta, a Republican who supports the death penalty, argued that DNA testing eliminated the possibility of people being executed in error, and that capital punishment was a valid deterrent for the worst crimes.
“How can you not impose the death penalty on people like Osama bin Laden?” Asselta said.
Asselta predicted the full Senate would vote to abolish the death penalty because it was controlled by Democrats who would be supported by some Republicans.
Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat, is opposed to the death penalty, and has said he will sign any such bill after it is approved by the legislature, both of whose houses are controlled by Democrats.
Any decision by New Jersey to scrap its death penalty would likely encourage some other U.S. states to take a harder look at the issue at a time when both death sentences and executions are at their lowest levels in a decade, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a group that campaigns for its abolition.
The hearing follows a report from a New Jersey legislative panel in January this year that recommended abolishing the death penalty, partly on grounds that it does not deter the worst crimes and is a greater burden on taxpayers than life without parole.
The New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission also cited increasing evidence that the death penalty was “inconsistent with evolving standards of decency.”
New Jersey currently has nine people on death row but has not executed anyone since 1963. Nationwide, 53 people were executed in 2006 in the 38 states that have the death penalty, down from 98 in 1999, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
On May 4, the state of Alabama executed death row inmate Aaron Lee Jones by lethal injection.
His was the 17th execution in the United States this year and the 1,074th since capital punishment was restored in the United States, according to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.