Dismantling the Machinery of Death

New Jersey is poised to become the first state to abolish the death penalty legislatively.

The state Senate’s Budget Committee has recommended that the state replace its unused death penalty statute with a sentence of life imprisonment without parole. The full Senate and General Assembly were expected to vote in December, after this column was written.

“There is growing support for repealing the death penalty among legislators, the law enforcement community, and the general public,” outgoing Assemblyman Wilfredo Caraballo said in November.

During a Dec. 3 hearing, opponents of capital punishment — including families of murder victims — called on the state to repeal a law that has been a sham for victims, offering the false promise of closure as the endless appeals process spins on itself, while also being extremely costly and contrary to the “evolving standards of human decency.”

Vicki Schieber, mother of a woman who was raped and murdered in Philadelphia in 1998 and a member of the Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, said the lengthy legal process is “not an answer to many of us who have been through this pain.”

“There is no such word as closure, and going through the long, difficult, painful process of a trial puts much more pain ... in the murder victim’s families,” The Asbury Park Press quote her as saying.

The New Jersey legislation comes a little over a month after the American Bar Association issued a three-year review of eight states’ capital punishment procedures are administered unfairly and feature “major racial disparities, inadequate indigent defense services and irregular clemency review processes.”

“After carefully studying the way states across the spectrum handle executions, it has become crystal clear that the process is deeply flawed,” Stephen F. Hanlon, chairman of the ABA Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project, said in a press release. “The death penalty system is rife with irregularity — supporting the need for a moratorium until states can ensure fairness and accuracy.”

Finding that surety would seem a fool’s errand. The history of the death penalty is rife with errors ranging from mistaken convictions and biased sentencing to the general and overriding racial bias in the criminal justice system that values the lives of white victims above minorities and generally leaves black and Hispanic defendants behind the eight ball.

That’s why former US Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, writing in a 1994 dissent, called the attempt to fix capital punishment “a futile effort.” His basic argument — that “no combination of procedural rules or substantive regulations ever can save the death penalty from its inherent constitutional deficiencies” — goes to the heart of the ABA study.

The ABA, which is not calling for abolition, says that there are “significant racial disparities” and an array of procedural flaws and failed safeguards that make administering the death penalty in a fair and unbiased manner difficulty.

And make no mistake, the innocent are found guilty and sentenced to death. The Death Penalty Information Center lists at least eight men that it says were executed despite serious doubts about their guilt.

And consider this from a Dallas Morning-News editorial in April that reversed its century-old position on capital punishment: Two men convicted and sentenced to death — Ernest Ray Willis and Carlos De Luna. Willis is exonerated after 17 years in prison; De Luna was executed.

“The case against Mr. De Luna, in many eyes, does not stand up to closer examination.,” the paper wrote. “There are signs he was innocent. We don’t know for sure, but we do know that if the state made a mistake, nothing can rectify it.”

That’s why the paper reversed course and called for an end to executions in Texas — “because we cannot reconcile the fact that it is both imperfect and irreversible.”

The paper’s change of heart — like that of other major editorial boards and changing public opinion polls — is part of a larger change in societal attitude. The public has begun expressing doubts and we may soon find out if the machinery of death may finally be dismantled.

Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of the South Brunswick Post and The Cranbury Press. E-mail See his blog, Channel Surfing, at

From The Progressive Populist, January 1-15, 2008

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