New Jersey's Death Penalty Moratorium

New Jersey suspended its death penalty law this week. The state has not executed anyone in 43 years. But with its first execution approaching, the state legislature voted on a one-year moratorium. Polls show the state is still very divided over capital punishment.

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The state of New Jersey suspended its death penalty law this past week, putting executions on hold until a commission can study whether the system is fair and worth the cost to taxpayers. Acting Governor Richard Codey signed the bill as one of his last acts before leaving office. The governor of Illinois stopped executions there, but New Jersey's moratorium is the first passed by a state legislature. Nancy Solomon reports.

NANCY SOLOMON reporting:

New Jersey hasn't executed anyone in 43 years, but with its first execution approaching, the state Legislature voted on a one-year moratorium. Polls here show the state is still very divided over capital punishment, but a group called New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty convinced a bipartisan majority of legislators to support the moratorium.

Ms. CELESTE FITZGERALD (New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty): This was church basements and town halls and city councils passing resolutions and saying, `We want our lawmakers to take a more serious look at the death penalty.'

SOLOMON: Celeste Fitzgerald, director of the group, says the turning point came on Good Friday of last year when the US Conference of Catholic Bishops called for an end to capital punishment. Not only did that boost church involvement, but it influenced some of New Jersey's Catholic legislators. Fitzgerald says opinion about the death penalty is also changing as more DNA exonerations occur.

Ms. FITZGERALD: I've found that the more you learn about the death penalty, the less you like it. This study is going to take a look at who gets the death penalty. We've got years of statistical analysis in New Jersey that shows that killers of white persons are more likely to get the death penalty than killers of black persons.

SOLOMON: National studies have found that 80 percent of those executed were convicted of killing a white person, even though African-Americans are the victims in more than half of all homicides. While most Democrats voted for the moratorium, Republicans in New Jersey remain divided on the issue. Senator Anthony Bucco voted against it. He says the DNA testing that has exonerated inmates across the country is proof the system works.

State Senator ANTHONY BUCCO (Republican, New Jersey): DNA testing is becoming more and more used throughout the system. We voted on allowing DNA testing. That has helped tremendously.

SOLOMON: New Jersey's moratorium makes it the second state in the Northeast to suspend executions in the past year. New York's death penalty was ruled unconstitutional, and executions are rare anywhere in the region. But Richard Dieter at the Death Penalty Information Center says New Jersey's vote is part of a larger shift.

Mr. RICHARD DIETER (Death Penalty Information Center): The whole country is pulling back from the death penalty. There are less death sentences, less executions, less public support for the death penalty than there had been five and 10 years ago.

SOLOMON: The anti-death penalty group calculates that 96 people were executed in 2005. That's 180 fewer than in 1999. Also, all but two death penalty states have adopted life without possibility of parole as an alternative sentence. A Gallup Poll has found that support for the death penalty drops when people are given a choice. As a growing number of Americans begin to trust life sentences will really keep murderers in prison for life, pollsters predict support for the death penalty will continue to erode.

For NPR News, I'm Nancy Solomon.

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