Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Senate panel votes to abolish death penalty

The state of New Jersey is set to become the first to abolish the death penalty since it was reinstated by the US Supreme Court in 1976.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Gannett State Bureau

A state Senate committee Monday advanced a proposal to eliminate the death penalty in New Jersey, moving the state one step closer to becoming the only one to legislatively eliminate the punishment since it was reinstated nationally in 1976.

In front of a room spilling over with members of the public, the Senate budget committee took an hour and half of testimony for and against the measure to replace capital punishment with life without parole before approving the measure 8-4.

Public support for the bill came from those morally against the penalty and some victims' families saying the unused law -- no one has been executed in the state since 1963 -- harms families seeking swift justice.

Joined by over a dozen victims' family members, Vicki Schieber, whose daughter Shannon was raped and murdered in Philadelphia in 1998, said the death penalty and its long legal process is "not an answer to many of us who have been through this pain."

"There is no such word as closure, and going through the long, difficult, painful process of a trial puts much more pain and victim in the murder victim's families," said Schieber, a member of the Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights.

Not all victims' families felt this way. Linda Rusconi, whose sister was murdered in 2005, said, "It just doesn't seem fair or just to me to have her killer in prison hurting other guards and people, getting visitors, getting to read books, get to exercise and watch TV while we, my mother, myself, my sister's children . . . have to go visit my sister in the cemetery," Rusconi said.

Opponents of the bill want to refine the law and save the death penalty for the "most vicious, serious, grievous of murders," said ex-state Sen. John Russo.

"Clean it up, make it better," urged Russo, a member of the state's Death Penalty Study Commission, who did not agree with the commission's suggestion to repeal the law.

Senate Minority Leader Leonard Lance, R-Hunterdon, tried to introduce an amendment to reserve the punishment for cop-killers, terrorists and those who rape and murder juveniles, but the amendment was not considered by the committee.

New Jersey has eight men on death row.

Some Democratic senators said although they previously favored the death penalty, they had changed their mind and voted in favor of the repeal.

Sen. Stephen M. Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said the current law gives victims' families "false hope."

"Families deserve closure. They deserve at least an attempt to move on with their lives. The death penalty doesn't give that to anyone," said Sweeney, who voted to abolish the death penalty.

The other tri-county senator on the panel, Martha Bark, R-Burlington, voted to keep the death penalty.

The budget committee took up the bill to review the potential savings the state could see as a result. Bill sponsor Sen. Raymond Lesniak, D-Union, called this "weakest reason to repeal the death penalty." While savings were brought up, the committee quarreled mostly over the principles of the bill and not its fiscal impact.

The Office of Legislative Services determined it could not accurately quantify the total costs or savings of the bill due to a number of variables. OLS did, however, find moving inmates from the Capital Sentence Unit to the general prison population generated an estimated $32,481 savings per inmate annually, and the state could save $1.46 million annually from Office of the Public Defender trial costs based on the average number of capital-punishment cases per year.

The measure now heads to the full Senate for a vote which could come as early as next Monday. Lesniak said he expects the bill to pass, but conceded "it'll be close."

Lance said the Senate Republicans' caucus will not take a party position and that each GOP lawmaker will be advised to vote their conscience.

Legislative leaders have pushed to have the measure voted on before the current legislative session expires Jan. 8. Along with the expected Senate vote, an Assembly committee is set to take up similar legislation next Monday, with a vote expected in the lower house Dec. 13.

Reach Michael Rispoli at mrispol@gannett.com

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