Let’s face it – there’s really no such thing as closure for a family that loses a loved one to murder.
But putting a killer behind bars for life in a maximum security facility can help a murder victim’s family put the public part of their loss behind them.
Personally, I’ve always opposed the death penalty. I don’t believe it is a deterrent to murder which is most often driven by uncontrolled rage, jealousy or serious mental illness.
And in cases of international terrorism, it’s been clear that intentional suicide is often an integral part of the package.
The bill (S-171) I am co-sponsoring to replace the death penalty in New Jersey with life in prison without parole was approved this week by the Senate Judiciary Committee and now awaits a floor vote in the Senate.
I believe New Jersey, as a society committed to protecting our residents from dangerous individuals while still exacting rational retribution for horrific offenses, is ready for this evolution of our law enforcement and penal systems.
Most people agree that the current system of endless appeals to murder convictions just doesn’t work. Families are forced to revisit their tragic losses every time there’s another review. It will be better to have a certain sentence imposed and then have the killer put away forever.
My opposition to the death penalty has only been reinforced by the scientific advancement of DNA testing which has proved conclusively that egregious mistakes have been made by the criminal justice system in convicting the wrong people for murder and a host of other offenses.
The truly remarkable investigative tool of DNA linkage to crime scenes has expedited many reversals of the mistakes made by humans in misidentifying people when they are traumatized by horrific events like witnessing murders.
The good news about DNA testing is that a steady line of wrongfully convicted people have walked out from behind bars after years of incarceration after irrefutable proof of their innocence has been extracted from old evidence bins.
Likewise, people who have escaped prosecution for years have been plucked from the streets after the emergence of DNA evidence.
The bad news is that we’ll still never know for sure how many innocent people from the past faced their final moments, looking up at a gallows or sitting in an electric chair, knowing they were about to die for something they did not do.
The State’s Death Penalty Study Commission recently produced a report which concluded that it made sense to replace the death penalty with life in prison without parole.
While the Commission heard testimony from individuals demanding justice for lost loved ones through use of the death penalty, it also heard from those families who preferred knowing killers would be locked up for life once and for all.
I understand the zeal of people who speak with commitment about justice delayed being justice denied. In fact, I agree with them. That’s why moving this legislation is the right thing to do. It will provide certainty in sentencing and terminate the endless process of costly appeals.
As for the need for retribution, this was answered by the testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee by former Trenton State Prison Warden Gary Hilton who described the daily drudgery of the conditions in a maximum security facility as a truly punitive and isolated “death by incarceration.”
The eruption of calls to maintain the death penalty for terrorists in light of the alleged plot to murder soldiers at Fort Dix should be kept in perspective. It could be argued without irony that the terrorists’ mission to reach paradise through murderous mayhem and self destruction might be unbearably detoured by a life sentence at Trenton State Prison.
But I will continue to rely on my belief that the death penalty is not a deterrent to murder and that our limited resources can be better applied to helping crime victims and protecting people from violence.
Senator Weinberg is a Democrat representing the 37th Legislative District in Bergen County. She is the co-sponsor of S-171, a bill that would repeal the death penalty in New Jersey and replace it with life in prison without parole.