Reviving the death penalty in N.J.: The case for and against

State of State
Sen. Steve Oroho (right) is sworn in by Senate President Richard J. Codey at the statehouse on Jan. 8, 2008 in Trenton.

Two New Jersey senators want to bring back the death penalty for what they call the "most heinous acts of murder," including terrorism and attacks on police officers.

"These are extreme circumstances that are involved," said Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D., Cape May), who, along with Sen. Steve Oroho (R., Sussex), introduced legislation Monday to revive the death penalty. "But I do believe it's an option that should be there, however seldom used."

The death penalty was abolished in New Jersey in 2007.

A state study commission concluded then that it cost more to sentence someone to death than life without parole, that advances in DNA testing had raised doubt about some convictions, and that the death penalty rarely was used.

The last execution in New Jersey happened in 1963. In Pennsylvania, three prisoners have been executed since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976.

Nationally, 28 inmates were put to death last year, far fewer than in 1999, when a record 98 were executed, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit that tracks capital punishment and is critical of the process.

Voters in California, Nebraska, and Oklahoma favored keeping the death penalty when it was put on the ballot this month.

In New Jersey, in addition to fatalities caused by terrorism and the targeting of police officers, Oroho and Van Drew want to make the death penalty an option when a child is killed during a sex crime, multiple people are slain, or an individual already has a previous conviction for murder.

Oroho said he believes the death penalty could dissuade people such as Ahmad Khan Rahami, who is accused of setting off bombs in September in New York City, injuring 29 people, and in Seaside Park, N.J., along the course of a 5K run benefiting injured Marines. A delay in the race start prevented injuries there.

The death penalty could not apply the Rahami case because no one was killed, but Oroho said the attacks illustrated the need for capital punishment.

"Many people could have lost their lives," he said.

Former Gov. Jon S. Corzine ended capital punishment in 2007 after the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission - composed of judges, prosecutors, and others whom the Legislature asked to study the issue - advocated a ban, citing factors such as high costs.

Keeping an inmate in New Jersey State Prison's capital-sentence unit cost at least $72,000 per year - $32,000 more than keeping an inmate in the prison's general population, the commission said in its report.

The state Office of the Public Defender also estimated in the report that eliminating the death penalty would save $1.4 million annually. The office based that figure on 19 death-penalty cases that existed in 2006, and the costs of pretrial preparation and jury selection.

Thomas F. Kelaher, who was part of the commission and Ocean County's prosecutor at the time, had his office try the death penalty on two Bronx men accused of tying up a mother and her adult son, slitting the mother's throat, and shooting both in the back of the head in a Barnegat home in 2000.

Kelaher said more than 200 jurors were interviewed - mostly about whether they supported the death penalty - before 14 were selected.

"It took us a long, long time to get to the conclusion of the case, and they never got the death penalty anyway," said Kelaher, who is now mayor of Toms River. Gregory "Shaft" Buttler and Dwayne Gillispie received life sentences instead.

Had they received the death penalty, Kelaher said, appeals likely would have followed and taken up more time and resources.

Kelaher called the process "a waste of time."

"It never ends," he said.

West Orange Police Chief James P. Abbott, who also was on the death-penalty commission, said that it could take years for someone to be executed, and that trials and appeals cause families to relive the pain of losing a loved one.

"To me," Abbott said, the death penalty is "where it belongs - in our past."

The justice system, he said, also is subject to human error, which can put the wrong people behind bars.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 156 people on death row have been exonerated since 1973. DNA has played a role in some of the cases.

Van Drew said concrete evidence would be crucial if the death penalty were to return in New Jersey.

"DNA proof would be absolutely necessary in some way," he said. "We have to be absolutely sure that this person is guilty."

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