The state Senate approved legislation Monday that would make New Jersey the first state to abolish the death penalty since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court allowed states to impose the sentence.
The measure to replace the death sentence with life without parole would spare the life of a sex offender whose crimes sparked Megan’s Law. With the support of the Democrat-controlled Assembly and the Democratic governor, the bill is expected to be signed into law within a month.
New Jersey has eight men on death row and hasn’t executed anyone since 1963. It reinstated the death penalty in 1982.
A vote by the full Assembly was scheduled for Thursday. If approved, the bill goes to Gov. Jon S. Corzine, a death penalty opponent, for his signature. Corzine has until Jan. 8 to sign the bill.
Among the death row inmates who would be spared is Jesse Timmendequas, a sex offender convicted of murdering 7-year-old Megan Kanka in 1994. That case sparked a New Jersey law requiring law enforcement agencies to notify the public about convicted sex offenders living in their communities. Other states soon followed suit.
Megan’s parents, Richard and Maureen Kanka, have sent a letter to legislators urging them to retain the death penalty.
“The inmates currently on death row are the worst of the worst in our society, and to offer them the opportunity of life is a disgrace to their victims, the jurors that deliberated their fate and the majority of New Jersey residents who still support the death penalty,” they wrote.
Death sentence more expensive than life
The effort to abolish capital punishment in New Jersey stems from a January report by a special state commission. It found the death penalty was a more expensive sentence than life in prison and has not deterred murder.
“The death penalty is barbaric and fatally flawed beyond repair,” said Sen. Shirley Turner, a Democrat who sponsored the bill.
The Kankas, though, said the commission was biased.
“If there is any individual that deserves the death penalty, it’s the animal that did this to Megan,” they wrote. “To abolish this would be an injustice to our family.”
However, the bill has been supported by clergy and family members of murder victims who contend New Jersey’s death penalty law has proven meaningless.
The Supreme Court in 1972 struck down 40 state death penalty laws but did not ban capital punishment as cruel and unusual. Some justices at the time thought their decision would end the practice.
By 1976, though, officials in 35 states had adopted laws to comply with the ruling. A more conservative court upheld some of those laws, and a half-year later executions resumed.
Megan’s Law sparked a national notification movement. In 1996, Congress passed a law requiring all states to notify the public when a sex offender moves into their community.
According to the group Parents for Megan’s Law, 614,000 sex offenders are registered nationwide.