Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Toward justice

If Florida could follow New Jersey's lead . . .

Practicality. Justice. Morality. These three forces combined this week in New Jersey, when Gov. Jon Corzine signed that state's historic ban on the death penalty. It is the first state in the nation to legislatively abandon the death penalty as an antiquated, arbitrary and illogical penalty. It should not stand alone.

Unlike Florida, New Jersey hasn't conducted an execution since 1963 and seemed unlikely to do so any time soon. Yet the state -- like Florida -- has spent millions in death-penalty litigation, sending families of murder victims on a seemingly never-ending emotional roller coaster.

Even before he was elected, Corzine never made any secret of his opposition to capital punishment (a fact that undermines the belief that the public won't support anti-death-penalty candidates). But the state didn't leap into the debate over the death penalty blindly. Instead, the Legislature convened a study commission that looked at all angles of the death penalty and finally -- citing the weight of evidence against it -- recommended abolition. The commission's report included several conclusions:

· There's no evidence that executions serve "legitimate penological intent." Capital punishment doesn't serve as a deterrent to murder, especially when it's so arbitrarily applied.

· It costs more to administer the death penalty than it does to keep someone in prison for the rest of his or her life. The commission considered emotional as well as monetary costs in its calculation.

· The death penalty is increasingly out of step with "evolving standards of decency." Polls show public support slipping for capital punishment, especially when pollsters include the option of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

· Abolishing the death penalty could reduce inequities in sentencing. The commission didn't find persuasive evidence of racial bias, but did find that death sentences were often unrelated to the severity of the crime for which the condemned was executed. More likely predictors: Poverty and the quality of the accused's legal representation.

· Society's interest in executing convicted murderers is outweighed by the high probability of executing an innocent person. This statement was bolstered by the recent rash of sentences overturned by DNA evidence -- and the sure knowledge that many more cases might never be overturned because DNA wasn't preserved or never existed.

· Life in prison without the possibility of parole is just as effective in protecting the public.

The commission wasn't asked to address the horrific spectacle of botched executions, or the lingering doubts that lethal injection -- the execution method most commonly used in the United States -- could in fact be a torturous death for many prisoners.

These arguments should be just as persuasive in Florida, which has led the nation in overturned convictions and has more reason than most states to doubt the guilt of those on death row: 25 condemned men have been freed since 1973. Yet state leaders show little interest in following New Jersey's footsteps. What will it take for one Florida leader to find the courage to speak out against this ongoing injustice -- and to work to put an end to state-sanctioned killing?

Corzine gave a passionate speech before signing the historic legislation in which he quoted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: "Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation." Florida has yet to evolve. For the sake of justice, it should.

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