Death penalty foes hope N.J. will inspire others to follow suit
New Jersey Sen. Robert Martin is mindful of history.
"One hundred years from now I hope we will be remembered for having had the courage to be leaders in advancing this cause for a more civilized society," said Martin, R-Morris.
The cause: Abolishing the death penalty.
The New Jersey is poised to give final legislative approval on Thursday to abolishing the death penalty, becoming the first state to do so since 1965 when Iowa and West Virginia abolished it.
The state Senate approved the bill Monday; The Assembly will vote Thursday and is expected to pass it. Democratic Gov. Jon S. Corzine has said he'll sign the bill.
Death penalty foes are hoping New Jersey will inspire others to follow suit.
"I hope New Jersey will give encouragement to other legislators and public officials to have the courage to face this issue squarely," said Joshua Rubenstein, Amnesty International USA's northeast director.
Diann Rust-Tierney, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said New Jersey reflects a growing national trend against the death penalty, with executions in decline and more states weighing abolition.
"We have learned a lot about the death penalty in the past 30 years," Rust-Tierney said. "When you look closely at the facts, it just doesn't add up to sound policy."
She noted New Jersey's votes come a week after Michael L. McCormick of Tennessee was acquitted in a retrial after spending 15 years on death row.
The nation has executed 1,099 people since the U.S. Supreme Court reauthorized the death penalty in 1976. In 1999, 98 people were executed, the most since 1976; last year 53 people were executed, the lowest since 1996.
"The United States is one of the few countries in the world that has a death penalty, keeping company with the likes of Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Libya and Afghanistan," said New Jersey Sen. Raymond Lesniak, D-Union.
Other states have considered abolishing the death penalty, but none have advanced as far as New Jersey. According to the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, 37 states have the death penalty.
"Some people deserve to die and we have an obligation to execute them," said New York Law School professor Robert Blecker, a national death penalty supporter who has been lobbying New Jersey lawmakers against abolition.
But death penalty foes point to recent success:
_ The Massachusetts House in November rejected reinstating the death penalty.
_ A 2004 appeals court decision found New York's death penalty law unconstitutional.
_ The American Bar Association recently said problems in state death penalty procedures justify a nationwide execution freeze.
_ Tennessee lawmakers are analyzing that state's death penalty.
_ Then-Gov. George Ryan of Illinois declared a moratorium on executions in 2000 after 13 people who were found to have been wrongfully convicted were released.