Opponents of the death penalty in the United States were celebrating a crucial vote in New Jersey yesterday that clears the way for it to become the first state in four decades formally to repeal capital punishment - a reform that could help turn the tide of public opinion across the country.
The state Senate voted by 21 to 16 to replace executions with life in prison without the possibility of parole for the worst offenders. The lower house is widely expected to follow suit tomorrow and convey the bill to Jon Corzine, the Governor, for signature in January. He has long favoured scrapping the death penalty.
Since a ruling by the Supreme Court in 1976 permitted states to resume executions, the US has stood alone among the major Western democracies in practising capital punishment. In 2006, the US, Iraq, Iran, China, Sudan and Pakistan accounted for 91 per cent of all recorded executions worldwide.
Doubts have been raised in the US, however, over the death penalty's implementation and the risks of mistakes. In numerous states, executions are now on hold either by orders of the courts or moratoria declared by their governors. Death sentences have fallen 66 per cent since 1999.
But New Jersey is poised to be the first state to repeal the practice. Such a step would be "the clearest signal yet that the public is moving away from capital punishment," the Death Penalty Information Center, an anti-capital punishment group, said.
Sister Helen Prejean, the New Orleans nun whose book about ministering to death row inmates, Dead Man Walking, became a film, joined those urging New Jersey to abolish capital punishment. "This is a special moment," she said before yesterday's vote. "New Jersey is going to be a beacon on the hill."
There is little doubt that the bill will win passage in the lower house - the General Assembly - where the Democrats have control, or that Mr Corzine will ratify it.A spokeswoman confirmed that he planned to sign it.
The death penalty is currently on the books in 37 of the 50 US states. Pressure for change has been building, however, in part because of several recent cases where DNA testing has exonerated condemned inmates. In 2000, Illinois declared a moratorium on executions because of concern about wrongful convictions and several states have since followed suit.
A decision by the US Supreme Court in September, meanwhile, to consider a specific case questioning whether the use of lethal injection in Kentucky is humane has darkened execution chambers across the country for the time being and spurred wider debate. Most observers do not expect the deliberations to result in abolition nationwide, however.
The New Jersey decision will have minimal actual impact - only eight inmates are currently on death row and no one has been executed for more than 40 years - but the passage of a law finally repealing the death penalty would resonate across the country.
Larry Cox, the director of Amnesty International USA, also applauded the move. He said it was "just plain wrong" to take a life when there was any possibility of innocence.
A poll published yesterday by Quinnipiac University showed the repeal was opposed by 53 per cent of New Jersey residents, with 39 per cent in favour. Moreover, 78 per cent of respondents favoured keeping the death penalty for the most violent offenders. Nationally, polls show a majority supporting capital punishment, but by narrowing margins.
The momentum towards abandoning the death penalty accelerated in January when a special commission came down in favour of reform. "There is increasing evidence that the death penalty is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency," it concluded. Support for reform also came from the New Jersey Catholic Conference.
Democrat Assemblyman Wilfredo Caraballo is among those planning to vote in favour of repeal in the lower chamber. "One of the things about the death penalty that always bothered me is that it seems to lower us to the very level of the people we are trying to execute," he said.
The Assembly Speaker, Joseph Roberts, a Democrat, said that the time had come for reform.
© 2007 The Independent