December 14, 2007

US Death Penalty: The Garden State Shows The Way

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After approval from its state senate and legislature, New Jersey will now become the first state in more than forty years to abolish the death penalty.

In my column below, i highlighted the Supreme Court’s review of lethal injection as an encouraging sign in the campaign against capital punishment. At the least, it would mean no more executions in the US until the review’s conclusion next summer. However, the danger that the review would lead to public focus on the application of the penalty rather than the principle was also clear. The risk remained that the court could satisfy growing public scepticism by demanding a change in the ingredients used in lethal injection. While we should push for this reform, (the chemical mix is now not even used on animals), we must constantly try to shift the debate onto the issue of principle.

New Jersey’s decision is crucial in this regard. Firstly, while it becomes the fourteenth state to have abolished the death penalty, it also significantly becomes the first to have opted for abolition since the Supreme Court’s 1972 Furman v. Georgia ruling, which suspended the death penalty until 1976. Secondly, the findings of the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission act as a useful reminder that even if the court force changes to lethal injection, continuing a pattern of incremental reform that has seen the penalty outlawed for juvenile and mentally retarded offenders, the practice remains deeply flawed.

The bipartisan panel proved the main influence on New Jersey’s decision, with twelve of the thirteen members recommending abolition. Its findings reaffirmed the absence of any deterrent effect; those who are surprised by this forget that the majority of killers act on pure impulse, not rationality, making the consequences of their acts an irrelevance. Additionally, the risk of executing the innocent, though diminished by DNA testing, still stands against the death penalty. However, it was ultimately an economic argument that proved most persuasive to state legislators. Despite not actually executing anybody since reinstating capital punishment in 1982, New Jersey has spent $256 million just to maintain the execution infrastructure.

Two things now seem clear in the campaign for abolition. Firstly, that the US electorate are most likely to back change if the alternative offered is life sentence without parole. While 64 per cent continue to support the use of the death penalty, a slight majority now favour the alternative of imprisonment without release, adopted by New Jersey. Secondly, that the cumulative effect of detailing the practical defects of the death penalty is what turns many decisively against its use in principle. Thus, while principle should always take precedence over practice, it would seem for now that appeals to the wallet will be more effective than those to the heart.

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