New Jersey's Road to Abolition*

By Henry, Jessica S. | Justice System Journal, September 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

New Jersey's Road to Abolition*


Henry, Jessica S., Justice System Journal


New Jersey reinstated capital punishment in 1982 . The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed nearly every capital conviction that it reviewed between 1982 and 2007. Twenty-five years later, on December 17, 2007, the State of New Jersey officially abolished the death penalty and replaced it with life without the possibility of parole. This article examines multiple converging factors that contributed to abolition, including the New Jersey Supreme Court's decision making in capital cases, public-opinion data, political conditions, and the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission hearings and report. This article suggests that New Jersey judicial decision making fostered a culture of ambivalence toward capital punishment, which, when combined with a host of unique political and social factors, made abolition possible.

On December 17, 2007, the State of New Jersey officially abolished the death penalty and replaced it with life without the possibility of parole. In doing so, New Jersey became the first state in nearly 40 years to eliminate capital punishment kgislatively. The political decision by the New Jersey legislature and governor to abolish the death penalty is unique in recent history. As such, it should be carefully studied to determine how the experience in New Jersey contributes to an understanding of abolition processes.

Zimring and Hawkins (1986) suggest that states with a history of frequent executions are the states most likely to maintain, preserve, and most frequently use capital punishment today. This is so because frequent executions serve as a "kind of precedent, reassuring political actors that their own participation is neither inhumane nor immoral" (Zimring and Hawkins, 1986:144). As they argue, the historical use of capital punishment gives rise to cultural and political traditions that support continued executions.

Conversely, states with a history of infrequent executions are least likely to use capital punishment today. The absence of a "clear historical mandate for execution in a state results in the reduction of the enthusiasm of elected officials and political elites for execution, at the same time that it increases the level of opposition to execution in a particular state" (Zimring, 1991:741). Without a tradition of executions, states develop a culture of ambivalence about capital punishment.

Does New Jersey's experience with abolition fall within Zimring's theory of ambivalence? Between 1690 and 1963, 361 people were executed in New Jersey - a little more than one execution on average per year (Espy and Smylka, 2002). New Jersey's execution rate ranked twenty-third out of thirty-seven states with the death penalty (Zimring and Hawkins, 1987:136). New Jersey's death penalty was outlawed in 1972, and was not reinstated until 1982. The New Jersey Supreme Court later affirmed the constitutionality of the death penalty statute, but reversed or vacated nearly every capital sentence that came before it. As a result, New Jersey has conducted no executions since 1963.

How then was a state with a significant history of executions before the U.S. Supreme Court's Furman decision in 1972 decades later legislatively transformed into an abolitionist state? What explains the willingness of New Jersey politicians to abolish the death penalty in a state where the public supports capital punishment in principle? What impact did the New Jersey Supreme Court's death penalty decisions and pattern of reversals have on the state's political sensibilities around capital punishment?

This article first analyzes the history of the death penalty in New Jersey before and after the Furman decision. It then examines the New Jersey Supreme Court's pattern of decision making in capital-punishment cases since reinstatement in 1982 and examines public-opinion data from that same period. Finally, hypotheses are offered about the reasons for abolition in New Jersey and the multiple converging variables that contributed to abolition. …

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New Jersey's Road to Abolition*
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