Debating the Death Penalty in New Jersey
By David Proch

Even the murder of his daughter could not make Lorry Post waver on his stance against the death penalty.

"My wife and I asked the prosecutor not to request the death penalty, and she complied, because we did not want to be the killer of our daughter's killer, and our daughter would not have wanted that either," noted Post, member of Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation and New Jerseyans for a Death Penalty Moratorium (NJDPM), during a two-day conference on the death penalty held on the Newark campus of Rutgers University and Trinity Episcopal Church in Newark.

Leaders of the religious and legal communities, as well as citizens of New Jersey, met to discuss the legal, moral and legislative aspects of capital punishment as New Jersey stands on the brink of facing its first execution in 40 years.

Anti-death penalty advocates are pushing for legislation in the state Assembly and Senate which would suspend executions in the state until a commission conducts a comprehensive capital punishment study.

New Jersey reenacted the death penalty in 1982, which allowed for anyone the age of 18 or older to receive a death sentence, and originally did not exempt the mentally ill or retarded, but will have to after a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June. Thirteen people sit on death row in Trenton.

Among the issues discussed were: the death penalty as a deterrent for crime; the financial cost for the state to enforce the death penalty; the retributive nature of requesting the death penalty; public safety; racial and socioeconomic bias in the application of capital punishment; and the possibility of executing innocent people.

Nationwide, more than 100 innocent people have been released from death row since 1976, including 16 from New Jersey. The state has a 70 percent reversal rate for capital sentences.

An Illinois State University study estimated that death penalty processes cost New Jersey roughly $22.8 million annually. In addition, the New Jersey Supreme Court study in 1995 discovered that black defendants were 10 times more likely to receive the death penalty.

Dr. Matthew B. Johnson, member of Peoples Organization for Progress and NJDPM, said, "I had always been leery of the death penalty... It doesn't seem to have any deterrent value, I'm certain it has been used in a racially discriminatory manner, and I was aware that many other nations don't execute people."

"No state is immune to the distinct possibility of killing an innocent person," said Rev. Charles Atkins, a Presbyterian minister from Camden.

Guest panelist Rabbi Eric Lankin shared several instances where underprivileged defendants received lawyers who fell asleep during capital punishment cases. "Columbia University Law School released a study on comprehensive capital punishment that found that two thirds of capital punishment cases have serious mistakes, and the most common error was incompetent representation and misconduct," he added.

Dr. Joseph Chuman, Leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County, based in Teaneck, noted, "Studies show that the death penalty has no deterrent effect... and, in the act of killing the killer, we morally degrade ourselves."

Retired New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Alan B. Handler noted that there is something “unique and extraordinarily important” about death penalty cases. “There is the notion that there is something different about death as a criminal sanction, and it justifies more conscientious and heightened approaches to those cases.”

”I felt at the outset that the death penalty was not constitutional... it is imperative that this law be applied evenhandedly and with balance and proportionality, that defendants cannot be selected for a death sentence as if struck by lightning. Our death penalty statutes and the way they’re applied cannot achieve those particular constitutional standards,” Handler added.

“I think what’s most telling about how we do the death penalty in New Jersey and this country is when you look at the individual cases. The cases in which the attorneys are brilliant and marvelous are few and far between... the problems with the death penalty aren’t going to do anything but take money away from the real issues that we should be talking about in the criminal justice system,” said attorney Karl Keys.

"The death penalty labels people by their worst actions," said Father Robert Schulze, Director of the Office of Jail and Prison Ministry for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Trenton. "Whether they are guilty or not does not matter."

"As long as we are kept safe, there is no justification for capital punishment," Father Schulze added.

"Whatever our emotional reaction is to crime, we must answer the higher call of our faith,* Bishop John P. Croneberger, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, said in his welcoming remarks.

"Too often, 'pro-life' or 'right to life' means anti-abortion," said Father Schulze. "Life is God's gift to mankind, and life is sacred without any exception."

David Proch is an Honors College student at Rutgers-Newark. This article first appeared in The Catholic Advocate.