A blue-ribbon commission recommended Tuesday that New Jersey abolish the death penalty and urged legislators to replace it with the sentence of life without parole.
The 13-member commission said the costs of the death penalty are greater than the costs of life in prison without parole and concluded that abolition of the death penalty "will eliminate the risk" of uneven sentencing in capital cases.
In addition, the commission said "the penological interest in executing a small number of persons guilty of murder is not sufficiently compelling to justify the risk of making an irreversible mistake."
The alternative of life without parole at a maximum-security prison would ensure public safety and serve the interests of society and families of murder victims, the commission said.
The commission was created by the Legislature, which placed a one-year moratorium on executions pending the outcome of the study. Members included two clergymen, two prosecutors, a police chief, a former state Supreme Court justice, a former president of the New Jersey Senate and a representative of an organization advocating for the families of murder victims.
Money saved by abolishing the death penalty should be used to "ensure adequate services and advocacy for the families of murder victims," the commission recommended.
John F. Russo, former president of the state Senate who sponsored New Jersey's capital punishment law, was the lone dissenter on the commission. He said cost was irrelevant and that the risk of executing an innocent person in New Jersey was minute.
"I believe that the fundamental problem is not the statute, but rather liberal judges and other individuals who have consistently disregarded the legislative will and refused to enforce the law as written," Russo said.
New Jersey last executed someone in 1963 and has nine people on death row.
The commission held several public hearings, taking testimony from prosecutors and defense lawyers, corrections experts, judges, law enforcement officials, citizens, relatives of murder victims and people convicted of murder but later exonerated.
Richard Pompelio, founder of the New Jersey Crime Victims' Law Center and father of a murder victim, testified that the death penalty is the greatest failing of the state's justice system because it re-victimizes victims. He urged that funds spent on the death penalty be used for services for survivors of homicide victims and funding for law enforcement.
Celeste Fitzgerald, director of New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said she hoped legislators would read the report and act on it soon.
Joseph J. Roberts, (D-Brooklawn), speaker of the state Assembly, said he favored abolishing the death penalty, citing testimony from crime victims and members of the law enforcement community.
Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times