Having not executed anybody since 1963, the New York Times is reporting today that New Jersey is currently in the process of becoming the first state to repeal the death penalty. The Senate Judiciary Committee has already approved the measure, and it is expected that both of the houses in the state will review the proposal in the next several weeks. New Jersey’s Governor, Jon S. Corzine, has indicated that he will approve the bill should it pass both houses. Passage in the Assembly is seen to be highly probable, but it is unsure whether the measure would pass the Senate.
One driving force in this repeal appears to be the growing number of exonerations throughout the United States based on newly available information and scientific evidence. The Washington Post is reporting today on a murder case in which there was evidence presented matching lead content in bullets of the gun owned by the accused and the gun used in the murder; such evidence aided in the conviction of the accused murderer. However, it has recently come to light that the expert who presented this evidence had provided false credentials and inaccurate statements to jurors. Additionally, “Two years before, the FBI crime lab had discarded the bullet-matching science that it had used to link Kulbicki to the crime.” Now, the Court must consider the propriety of overturning the conviction.
Aside from this specific instance of improperly presented evidence leading to the conviction of an accused murderer, in general it is being recognized that there have been problems with misidentification. Accordingly, many prisons are providing prisoner access to DNA evidence to prisoners, which has led to a significant number of exonerations (see my previous post here for more).
Another issue aiding in the reconsideration of the death penalty constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. As noted in a previous post, many states have placed executions on hold while the United States Supreme Court considers this question. In these states, such executions have been primarily suspended by the Court or Governor; New Jersey would be the first state where the legislature is the body enforcing any cessation of executions.
Those opposing the New Jersey bill point to the deterrent effect that the presence of the death penalty provides. Opponents of the death penalty see New Jersey’s bill as an opening to reexamine death penalty laws throughout the United States. It is reported that one State Senator is pushing for more of a middle ground – a bill that would maintain the death penalty, but apply the sentence in more limited circumstances.
Whether lethal injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment is an issue that is currently being left to the Supreme Court and is a question that can not be accurately answered without in depth scientific study. Also, whether the death penalty for certain crimes is a greater deterrent than other punishment, such as a life sentence without parole, is a question that I imagine has been studied in depth by a great many scholars who have much more in depth knowledge of such issues.
With the answers to these questions being uncertain, the issue of the death penalty is certainly one that is not cut and dry, nor is it an issue that has a ready solution. Even so, the case of the Maryland murder case described above is a concrete example of why such punishment should not be rushed into; while extended wrongful imprisonment (as is the case in Maryland where it does not appear the accused was sentenced to death) is a serious matter, even worse would be the discovery of new scientific evidence (or evidence of improperly applied scientific evidence as in the Maryland case) after the accused is executed due to an improper conviction.