The New Jersey Public Defender's Office said Tuesday it won't challenge Gov. Jon S. Corzine's decision to commute the death sentences of eight men now that the state's death penalty has been abolished.
The office had questioned whether Corzine had authority to do that because the penalty of life imprisonment without chance of parole didn't exist when the men committed their crimes. But spokesman Tom Rosenthal said legal research has shown that the governor does have the authority.
Corzine commuted the sentences Monday as he signed a law making New Jersey the first to abolish the death penalty in more than 40 years. Relatives of those killed by the eight had worried that if the commutations were overturned, it could open the door to at least some eventually getting released on parole.
Rosenthal said federal case law related to the 2003 decision by then-Illinois Gov. George Ryan to commute death sentences of all 167 inmates on that state's death row to life in prison indicated governors have authority to do so and Corzine's move would be upheld.
"We wouldn't prevail, so we won't be pursuing that," said Rosenthal, whose office represents the eight men. He said that means the men who sat on death row will spend the rest of their lives in prison.
Even without a court challenge, the action could still have political effects.
Victim's families decry ban
Marilyn Flax, whose husband was abducted and murdered in 1989, vowed to work against Corzine and the lawmakers who voted last week to abolish the death penalty.
"I will make sure my voice is used and they are not re-elected," she said.
John Martini Sr., the man who killed Flax's husband, is among the eight men whose sentences were commuted.
Another of the eight is Jesse Timmendequas, the sex offender who murdered 7-year-old Megan Kanka in 1994. The case inspired Megan's Law, which requires law enforcement agencies to notify the public about convicted sex offenders living in their communities.
Megan's father, Richard Kanka, is still hopeful the men won't see old age. "The only thing we can really hope for is somebody in jail will knock off these guys," he said.
The New Jersey constitution gives the governor authority to "grant pardons and reprieves in all cases other than impeachment and treason."
New Jersey reinstated the death penalty in 1982 — six years after the U.S. Supreme Court allowed states to resume executions — but hasn't executed anyone since 1963.
Corzine said he was moved by passionate views on both sides, but believes eliminating capital punishment "best captures our state's highest values and reflects our best efforts to search for true justice."
A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed New Jersey voters supported keeping the death penalty by 53 percent to 39 percent. The telephone poll of 1,085 voters was conducted from Dec. 5-9 and had a sampling error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
The bill passed the legislature largely along party lines, with controlling Democrats supporting the abolition and Republicans opposed. Republicans unsuccessfully sought to retain the death penalty for those who murder law enforcement officials, terrorists and those who rape and murder children.
The nation's last execution was Sept. 25 in Texas. Since then, executions have been delayed pending a U.S. Supreme Court decision on whether execution by lethal injection violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.